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Starting late Friday afternoon, the GOP grassroots was abuzz. Folks who had organized, committed dollars, pledged volunteer efforts – sizable in historic proportions – were about to finally know the fate of the undisputed frontrunner for the GOP nomination for 2012.

In more polls, in more states, by more national pollsters and consistently in polls pitted against President Obama head-to-head, no candidate had experienced greater “virtual” success dating back to February of 2010 than Gov. Mike Huckabee. For more than one full year, President Obama had lost poll after poll to Huckabee, while soundly defeating potential candidates Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Ron Paul and a litany of others.

Questions had been raised about Huckabee’s ability to raise money, but in recent days, specific, targeted meetings with some of the largest money-persons and bundlers available had made it clear a Huckabee candidacy would be well endowed.

Questions were raised about his policy positions in 2008, but ever since – on a daily basis – Gov. Huckabee had made his case clear to an audience that used to gain similar insights from Paul Harvey on more than 600 radio stations. Then, of course, his ratings bonanza on Fox News was added like ice cream on apple pie. Consistently, he didn’t just win his timeslot on Saturday evenings, but would beat all other weekend news programming on Saturday nights. Frequently the Sunday night replays of his show would garner second place in all of weekend cable news.

Questions had been raised about his family’s concerns and the emotional and physical toll a campaign cycle has on relationships. But Huckabee made it clear Saturday evening at roughly 9:56 p.m. EST, his decision was not based on money, platform/name recognition or family concerns.

All of the outstanding questions being answered, he explained that it all came down to a decision within – and that he was at peace with what he had decided. He was out. Period.

His absence in the 2012 contest leaves an enormous hole for the most reliable block of GOP voters in the country: evangelicals. His absence in the debates leaves the spotlight for someone else – given that he was largely considered the winner of all the GOP debate contests in the 2008 race. His absence removes the only candidate the GOP had, that was consistently polling ahead of Obama, every week, in nearly every poll and across a broad coalition of voting groups – including blacks, Hispanics and other nontraditionally GOP-leaning categories.

Huckabee made it clear that he intends to stay involved in the process, assisting candidates, keeping his political-action group active and weighing in on races from Congress to president. It just won’t be assisting him.

I’ve written at length in my new book about the biggest deficit we face as a nation, and it is not one that is measured in dollars, commerce or trade – it is one of character and having someone who clearly delineates right and wrong, common sense from stupidity, and speaking directly and plainly to the hearts of the voters is something we desperately lack.

With such a person, Huckabee, stepping aside, a wide open field becomes even more important. Honest answers to genuine questions become more crucial. Most importantly, tremendous insight and solutions to the biggest challenges of our national identity must be found.

The GOP is now at a distinct disadvantage with Huckabee out. The field now includes no one who consistently matches up well against the president, and in some ways you know the Obama camp must be thrilled at the prospect of not having to send the incumbent into a general-election debate against the much smarter wit of the governor.

But all is not lost, not even close. Ideas matter. Words mean things. Policies impact lives. And decisions have consequences.

President Obama even this week made a series of tremendously dishonest faux pas, on one hand claiming our domestic-drilling levels were at historic highs – only to be shown that they are roughly half what they were in 1970. He can and must be held accountable.

In some ways the race is perfectly aligned for a political outsider to come in and do well. Herman Cain, by most accounts, won the first debate held in South Carolina, and perhaps Huckabee’s exit is his gain.

Once the announcement was made, my producer came to my studio and queried, “What do you think?”

My answer was simple: “I think we all need to do our homework, know the issues, know the positions of the candidates and become advocates for the ideas we believe will solve our biggest problems.”

In short, absolutely nothing has changed, and it’s time to get to work.

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