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I Heart Huckabee

GOP contenders beware: If Mike Huckabee runs, he'll have a real chance.

For Mike Huckabee, the decision of whether to run for president has got to be excruciating. On the one hand, he’s done quite well in both primary and general election polls without lifting a finger. He has a very clear path to the nomination based on his demonstrated strengths with socially conservative voters in 2008. And the GOP has moved in his ideological direction since then, making his “insurgent” persona far more of an asset than a liability. On the other hand, he’s got more than a few powerful enemies in elite Republican circles and he’s doing what he seems to love most—hosting a regular television show—while making real money for the first time in his life. He’s also young enough, at fifty-five, to wait for 2016 to run. 

In the meantime, Huckabee is doing his very best to keep his options open: putting together an organization-in-waiting, quashing rumors that he’s definitely taking a pass on 2012, staying in the limelight with the occasional controversial statement, and getting around the country—and the world—with some regularity. He’s even reported to be meeting with potential 2012 fundraisers, thereby addressing his greatest weakness in 2008. But while there’s an element of truth to his claim that residual name identification from 2008 gives him more time to decide than a relative unknown candidate like Mitch Daniels—not to mention more free media opportunities from his perch at Fox—his base of conservative activists is getting restless, and Fox itself is said to have given him a May 31 deadline to get off the fence or give up his show. Several members of the 2008 team that engineered Huckabee’s shocking upset over Mitt Romney in Iowa have already taken their talents elsewhere, and his reputation as an outsider who substitutes hard work for deep pockets is taking a hit, particularly when compared to Tim Pawlenty, who has been relentlessly organizing in the First-In-the-Nation-Caucus state. In other words, Huck will soon be forced to make up his mind, and if he does jump into the race by early summer, the question remains: What are his actual chances?

Huckabee’s biggest advantage is a crystal clear path to victory in the Republican primary, based on the simple fact that two of the first four states in the nominating process, Iowa and South Carolina, are among his national strongholds. Early polls of likely caucus-goers in Iowa show him running first or second, despite an extended absence from the state. His unique position of authority among conservative evangelicals is critical given that group’s unusual importance in the caucuses. And some key members of his 2008 Iowa team, notably co-chairman Bob Vander Plaats, are still on the sidelines, ready for duty, while others are working for candidates who might be considered Huckabee stalking horses (e.g., Judge Roy Moore, whose main Iowa supporter is Huck’s other 2008 Iowa co-chair, Danny Carroll). 

Huck should also favor his odds in South Carolina, where he came very close in 2008 to derailing John McCain’s nomination—and might well have won the state if he hadn’t earlier taken a flier on an expensive and futile excursion into Michigan. It also didn’t help that fellow-southerner Fred Thompson made a last ditch effort in the Palmetto State, taking away votes that might have otherwise gone to the Arkansan. But this time around, with Haley Barbour out of the race, Huck would be the natural 2012 front-runner in the state, particularly if he had already rained on Tim Pawlenty’s parade in Iowa and made a decent showing in New Hampshire. And finally, even if the state of Florida fails to move its primary up into February, Florida’s Republicans are likely to hold a relatively early and critical contest, perhaps immediately after South Carolina. This should also favor Huckabee, who is building a very large house near Pensacola, is now registered to vote in Florida, and whose best-known 2008 backer in the Sunshine State was a guy named Marco Rubio, now everyone’s early favorite for the 2012 vice presidential nomination.

But if Huckabee can chart a credible path to victory, he’s also got more than a few roadblocks he’ll have to contend with along the way. The biggest of such hurdles is the hostility he invariably arouses in elite Republican circles. Huckabee first ran afoul of these groups in 2008, when he refused to defend George W. Bush’s handling of the economy and sounded the occasional populist notes despite his fairly orthodox fiscal positions. His record of budget compromises—including some that involved tax increases—with Democratic legislators in Arkansas was enough to arouse the formidable antipathy of Grover Norquist, who has made enforcing no-tax-increase pledges on state-level Republicans a top priority in the last decade. More generally, a war of words between Huckabee, several major conservative talk-show hosts (including Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck), and the Club for Growth faction (which Huck once termed the “Club for Greed”) has left some very bad blood that refuses to go away. The result is that if Huckabee runs in 2012, there will be a bottomless well of money and air-time available for attacks on his Arkansas record—and not just the tax increases he approved, but his exercise of executive clemency powers and the ethics allegations made against him as governor.

A second, and closely related obstacle, is Huckabee’s less-than stellar ability to raise money. His 2008 campaign ultimately raised a total of $16 million (compared to $113 million raised by Mitt Romney), with nearly half of that coming in after he won Iowa. By comparison, one of his main rivals for the affections of Iowa’s social conservatives, Michele Bachmann, raised $13 million in 2010 for a House race. Huckabee appears to be one of those politicians who either hates asking for money or is simply no good at it, and unless he can prove himself adept at the kind of grassroots fundraising methods pioneered by the Obama campaign in 2008, this could be an immediate disqualifier. 

The final question dogging a potential Huckabee campaign is whether his love affair with the mainstream media—something that was absolutely crucial for him the last time around—will survive continued exposure to his world view. In the absence of impressive fundraising numbers, Huckabee’s extensive and largely favorable “earned media” in 2008 was a very important asset to his campaign. Like John McCain back in 2000, Huckabee got fawning press through exceptional affability and total accessibility, with some added bonus points for being genuinely funny and playing a passable bass guitar. Perhaps because he was considered such a good-natured long shot, few of Huckabee’s media friends took much of a serious look at exactly why this pleasant and rational-seeming man got most of his actual support from hard-core anti-abortionists and quasi-theocrats—nor did they question whether it was a good idea for an ordained Southern Baptist minister to run for president in the first place. But that could all change with a second, and more seriously regarded, Huckabee campaign. His poorly received remarks during a recent trip to Israel—in which he disparaged a two-state solution and highlighted his belief that there is actually no such thing as a Palestinian—could just be just the beginning of a rude awakening for a press corps that’s been thus far taken by the man’s considerable charm.

So it’s by no means surprising that Mike Huckabee is at best ambivalent about putting himself and his family through the ordeal of another presidential race. It is, however, a portentous decision not just for the Huckabees but for the entire Republican field. The major candidate most affected by which way it turns out is probably Tim Pawlenty, the smart-money frontrunner who seems to be staking everything on Iowa and who would likely struggle to become the electable conservative alternative to Mitt Romney in southern primaries if a rival like Huck is around. And ironically, it’s Romney, whose presidential ambitions were fatally damaged by Huckabee in 2008, who might ultimately benefit most from another campaign by his old rival—if that campaign helped to knock out more formidable candidates like T-Paw. But who knows? The man is a true phenomenon, and in a contest of personalities between Huckabee and Romney—or really, between Huckabee and anyone in the field—it would really be no contest at all.

Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic. 

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