Washington (CNN) – Haley Barbour's exit from the GOP presidential sweepstakes leaves his endorsement and donors up for grabs. "He's a campaign without a candidate," says GOP strategist Alex Castellanos. And those who know Barbour expect him to take sides in the GOP primary.
"I doubt Barbour will sit on the sidelines for this," one top Republican strategist tells CNN, who points out Barbour didn't endorse anyone in the 2008 presidential primary and later regretted it. This person adds, "Now he's a free agent," but don't expect anything immediate.
Two senior Republican strategists tell CNN Barbour's donors were not rushing in to support his presidential bid because they were skeptical of his chances. Still, his endorsement would likely drive a lot of support. In Republican circles Barbour brings widely admired political acumen and a vast network, developed over years as chair of the Republican National Committee and Republican Governors Association.
The Mississippi governor's exit could make it easier for his friend, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, to enter the race.
"Haley Barbour is a great citizen; he’d have made a great president. I’d have been proud to try to help him had he chosen to run. The Barbours have been close and true friends to the Daniels family, and we will always be 100 percent supportive of any decision they believe is best for them," Daniels said in a statement.
Daniels is mulling a candidacy and said he will make a decision after the Indiana legislature ends its session this week.
Two senior Republican officials say he is still making up his mind. "I know this. He is undecided," one of them told CNN. Both officials insist Daniels' decision hinges on his family – not the other contenders in the race – so Barbour's move won't have a huge impact. One Republican official says it seems Daniels wants to be president, he just doesn't want to run for president.
The smaller Republican field could also give a boost to former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who is a friend of Barbour's from the time they served together on the Republican Governors Association. Like Barbour, Pawlenty is a social and fiscal conservative. One of Barbour's closest aides has just signed on to run Pawlenty's campaign. Pawlenty was the first of the GOP contenders to put out a statement reacting to Barbour.
It read: "Nobody has done more than Haley to build the Republican Party over the last three decades, including last year, when I had the privilege to be his vice chairman at the Republican Governors Association. He is one of the Republican Party's great leaders and an outstanding Governor for Mississippi. When Republicans defeat Barack Obama next year, it will be thanks to the solid party foundation Haley helped build."
Some of the other possible candidates seem less likely matches for Barbour's support. U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman has taken moderate stances on some key issues. Mitt Romney does not have the overwhelming support of social conservatives and he and Barbour are not considered close.
Barbour's broad list of activists, fundraisers, and donor lists will probably not all go to one place, and you can expect a fight for their support. One senior adviser of Romney's said this "will open things up a bit for Mitt in this fundraising quarter."
- CNN Senior Political Analyst Gloria Borger contributed to this report.