CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Less than a year before the South's first presidential primary, a new poll shows former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee leading a field of prospective Republican candidates among Southern voters.
Huckabee easily led former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, 21.9 percent to 12.9 percent. Former Govs. Sarah Palin of Alaska and Mitt Romney of Massachusetts scored 8.7 percent and 6.9 percent in the poll of 11 Southern states by Winthrop University of Rock Hill, S.C. The margin of error is plus or minus 5.3 percentage points.
While Gingrich is expected to announce an exploratory committee any day, no other likely candidate has taken that official step. The first GOP debate is on May 2 at the Reagan Library in California. The second takes place three days later in Greenville, S.C.
South Carolina is expected to hold the South's first presidential contest next February.
"It's no secret that Governor Huckabee is seriously considering a run . . . and various poll results like this one are, quite frankly, becoming hard for the governor and his political team to ignore," said Hogan Gidley, executive director of Huckabee's political action committee.
Three years ago, Huckabee narrowly lost the South Carolina primary to Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the eventual nominee. But Huckabee went on to win five Southern primaries.
"Huckabee knew in 2008 that a good part of his base was in the South as a region, and these results show that he still has a significant base in this area," said poll director Scott Huffmon, a Winthrop political scientist.
This month, Huckabee will barnstorm the region on a book tour. After stops Sunday in Greensboro and Fayetteville, N.C., he'll crisscross South Carolina next Monday and Tuesday. He's also got stops scheduled in five other Southern states.
In an interview Monday with a New York radio station, Huckabee erroneously said that President Barack Obama grew up in Kenya.
"And one thing that I do know is his having grown up in Kenya, his view of the Brits, for example, is very different than the average American," he told radio host Steve Malzberg. "... If you think about it, his perspective as growing up in Kenya with a Kenyan father and grandfather, their view of the Mau Mau Revolution in Kenya is very different than ours, because he probably grew up hearing that the British were a bunch of imperialists who persecuted his grandfather."
Although Obama's father was from Kenya, the president spent none of his childhood there.
Said Huckabee spokesman Gidley: "Governor Huckabee simply misspoke when he alluded to President Obama growing up in 'Kenya.' The governor meant to say the president grew up in Indonesia."
That's not completely true, either. Obama spent four years of his childhood in Indonesia, but grew up mostly in Hawaii.
"Probably the most surprising thing in the poll is how poorly Palin and Romney run," said Merle Black, an expert on Southern politics at Emory University in Atlanta. "It's very hard to see how Palin could win the nomination without doing very well in these Southern states."
Both Romney and Palin have reached out to Southern Republicans. Both were early endorsers of South Carolina's new Republican Gov. Nikki Haley. And 18 Southern members of Congress were among the 40 lawmakers who got a total of $83,500 Tuesday from Romney's Free and Strong America PAC.
Black said Romney is hurt by his identification with "Romney-care," the Massachusetts health care plan enacted while he was governor. It includes a mandate that virtually all in the state purchase health insurance, and thus is considered a model for the federal health care overhaul enacted in 2010 without any Republican support.
On Tuesday, another potential GOP candidate, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, slammed the Massachusetts plan at a House committee hearing in Washington.
"That's a huge problem for (Romney) in a Republican primary," Black said. "He would have to explain, despite the appearances to the contrary, how his plan is different than President Obama's plan."
A Romney spokesman couldn't be reached for comment.
(Morrill reports for the Charlotte Observer. Margaret Talev contributed to this article from Washington.)
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