LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — Former Gov. Mike Huckabee's exit from the presidential race doesn't just open up a new hunt for his home state's Republican delegates in the March 1 primary. It could also expose where the rifts lie in the GOP two years after it completed its sweep of Arkansas offices.
Huckabee's announcement last week that he was suspending his campaign after a dismal showing in the Iowa caucuses is already prompting a scramble among presidential campaigns for support in the former governor's backyard. It also puts into play a state that many had assumed to be Huckabee territory in the primary.
"Certainly his withdrawing from the presidential race places Arkansas even more in play and its 40 delegates up for grabs by the presidential contenders," state Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb said. "We expect more to visit the state in the coming weeks."
Even with Huckabee in the race, several GOP hopefuls had wandered into his backyard after Arkansas moved up its primary to March 1 — an effort to create a regional nominating contest supporters have dubbed the "SEC primary." The visitors have included U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, former Hewlett Packard executive Carly Fiorina, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and others over the past year.
Just how much the state is up for grabs became clear within days of Huckabee's exit. The same day billionaire businessman and reality television star Donald Trump rallied thousands of supporters at Little Rock's Barton Coliseum, Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin joined U.S. Reps. Rick Crawford and Steve Womack to back Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio for the nomination.
The move to support Rubio signals he's winning over a good chunk of the state's Republican establishment, with the state House and Senate majority leaders previously backing his bid. But he's also facing competition from Cruz, especially from social conservatives. Cruz's backers in the state include Sen. Jason Rapert, who sponsored the 12-week abortion ban that was struck down by federal courts, and Rep. Bob Ballinger, who sponsored the state's controversial religious objections law.
Many of the other top Republicans in the state remain up in the air. Huckabee had the support of most of the state's constitutional officers and congressional delegation, including Gov. Asa Hutchinson and U.S. Sen. John Boozman. Hutchinson, who enjoyed the support of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and other presidential hopefuls during his 2014 bid for governor, has said he'll make a decision closer to the March 1 primary on who to support.
Other notable Republicans are so far staying out of the race. Freshman U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, who has raised his national profile since taking office last year, didn't endorse Huckabee and so far hasn't said if he'll back anyone before Arkansas' primary.
The big question remaining is just how much the state's politics will play into the White House race. The GOP presidential hopefuls are hunting for votes in a party that still remains deeply divided over the future of Arkansas' hybrid Medicaid expansion. Hutchinson says he wants to keep the program, but with new limitations, with a special session on the program's future planned after the primaries.
Several statehouse primaries are pitting supporters who call the expansion a conservative reform against opponents who cast it as an embrace of the federal health law Republicans want to repeal. It remains to be seen whether the presidential primary will turn into a referendum on the program's future. The Huckabee-free primary could also show how much of a split there is in the party between social and fiscal conservatives.
But for now, many of the state's uncommitted Republican leaders say they're using the man they wanted nominated as the model for who to back next.
Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ademillo