01:34 - Source: CNN
Huckabee ends Fox News show

Story highlights

Mike Huckabee announced he's ending his Fox News show to explore a presidential bid

The former Arkansas governor won the Iowa caucuses in 2008 and has high name recognition

He'll focus on promoting his new book and meeting with donors in the next few months

He is expected to make his final decision in the spring

Washington CNN —  

Mike Huckabee’s announcement on Saturday to end his Fox News show marked yet another significant move by a key player in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, bringing the 2016 contest further into focus as a deep bench of prospective candidates begins to test the waters.

The former Arkansas governor said Saturday night’s episode of “Huckabee” would be his last. It was a necessary step, he said, as he explores a second presidential bid, a decision he stressed he won’t finalize until the spring.

“I say goodbye, but as we say in television, stay tuned. There’s more to come,” he said at the end of his show.

READ: Poll shows Bush surge as 2016 GOP frontrunner

His announcement comes nearly three weeks after former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush announced he will “actively explore” a possible run. A source close to Huckabee’s political operation said the decision to leave Fox has been long in the works and argued Bush’s timing had “zero” impact on Huckabee’s strategy.

Huckabee is set to take another typical pre-presidential step when he releases his book “God, Guns, Grits and Gravy,” on Jan. 20. His promotional tour is already scheduled to take him to Iowa, Tennessee, New York and Virginia. The Iowa book signing takes place one day after he is scheduled to appear at a Jan. 24 Des Moines event, hosted by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, and Citizens United, a conservative nonprofit based in Washington.

All told, the former governor will make 30 stops in 10 states over 10 days for his book tour, according to the source, including visits to the early primary state of South Carolina, in addition to Iowa. His website says he’s also leading a group of people to Israel in February. Israel is a common stop for prospective presidential candidates, though it’s a trip he’s also made in the past.

Huckabee rocketed to conservative fame in early January 2008 after he went from a long-shot candidate to the surprise victor of Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses. The win catapulted him into a fairly competitive race against Sen. John McCain, but the Arizona senator surged ahead and clinched the nomination in early March 2008.

Three years later, Huckabee considered another run but ultimately declined to throw his hat in the ring, announcing his decision on his show in May 2011.

With Huckabee back in the spotlight as a serious prospective candidate and with his television show no longer a distraction, his focus will shift toward securing the financial footing that he lacked in 2008 to sustain a prolonged campaign.

“If he decides to run this time, I think that’s something we will be able to remedy,” the source said. “It’s one of the things that he learned eight years ago: make sure you have the financial resources to compete.”

In fact, Huckabee spent a considerable amount of time on the campaign trail last year, rubbing elbows with donors and activists as he made multiples stops to each of the three early primary states to help 2014 candidates and speak at conservative and evangelical gatherings.

He has consistently done well in polls measuring support for the potential 2016 GOP field, ranking higher in many cases than other possible candidates who made more ambitious hints at a presidential run in the past year.

A recent CNN/ORC poll showed Huckabee tied for fourth place with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, with 6% support in the hypothetical GOP horse race. Bush topped the list at 23%, followed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at 13% and neurosurgeon Ben Carson at 7%.

RELATED: Huckabee ends Fox News show to mull 2016

Huckabee, who served as the Arkansas governor for nearly 11 years, benefits by having strong name recognition, thanks in part to his 2008 campaign but largely because of his successful cable news show that’s kept him a mainstay in the conservative political dialogue for more than six years.

Popular among social conservatives, the former Baptist pastor’s prospects will likely have the biggest impact on Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. Both men are seriously considering 2016 campaigns and have strong appeal among socially conservative voters. Santorum ultimately won the Iowa caucuses in 2012 in a delayed vote count, though Mitt Romney carried the early momentum since he was initially declared the winner.

Huckabee’s announcements could speed up the timelines for Cruz and Santorum, given that they’ll be competing in the same donor pool — a race, in many respects, that has already begun. It could also bring renewed attention in the race to social issues.

But Huckabee could be considered a threat to the candidacies of 2016 hopefuls outside the social conservative wing of the party. Rand Paul’s political team was quick to pounce on Huckabee’s announcement, buying ad space Saturday on Google and Twitter so that links to Paul’s website came up when people searched for Huckabee’s name. They employed similar tactics when Bush announced his interest.

And while having high name identification and an Iowa win already under his belt can certainly be a boost, it doesn’t guarantee another round of success in the Hawkeye State. George H.W. Bush, for example, won the Iowa caucuses in 1980, but lost the contest in 1988. Still, Bush went on to win the GOP nomination.

“It’s not so easy because people are always looking for something new or they still want to be wooed, so to speak,” said Tim Hagle, professor of political science at the University of Iowa. “They still want you to come in and do the work.”

Iowa’s caucus-going crowd is comprised of a three-pronged GOP base, made up not only by social conservatives but of mainstream Republicans and libertarian-minded voters as well.

Huckabee’s success, Hagle contends, will depend on who all gets in the race — a move that no one, including the former Arkansas governor and now ex-TV host, has officially made yet.

CNN’s Brian Stelter contributed to this report.