A leading question mark in an uncertain Republican presidential field is a potentially potent candidate who surged into prominence in 2008, briefly enjoyed soaring popularity, landed a book contract and television gig, and seems reluctant to forsake the resulting financial success and greatly enhanced lifestyle.
No, not Sarah Palin. Mike Huckabee.
And judging from the former Arkansas governor’s comments at the start of his nationwide tour for his sixth and latest book, that reluctance is delaying and may yet prevent a second White House bid next year.
More candid than many hopefuls, Huckabee has been so open recently about his concerns that he was forced in a television interview Sunday to counter the widespread speculation he is unlikely to run.
“The fact is I’m very much considering doing it again,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.” “I think I would be an excellent president and a good candidate.
“But what I want to know is do I think I can carry it to the finish line? Can I raise the level of money, an obscene amount of money that’s going to be necessary to win the primary, and then to challenge an incumbent president who’s going to have a billion dollars piled up just waiting on somebody to come after him?”
To underscore the fact that he may well try again, Huckabee opened the three-week national book tour touting his prescription for national problems, called “A Simple Government,” with five stops this week in the first caucus state of Iowa.
That’s where Huckabee’s unexpected 2008 ascent, began when enthusiasm for the genial Southern Baptist minister among the state’s large number of religious conservatives propelled him past former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney to an unexpected caucus victory.
But Huckabee’s under-funded and under-staffed candidacy faltered after Arizona Sen. John McCain edged him out in the crucial South Carolina primary, though Huckabee stayed in the race, ultimately winning eight states.
Afterward, he became host of a weekly Fox News Channel television program, a regular radio commentator and landed enough speaking engagements to start building a vacation house on a Florida beach, far from his humble Arkansas roots.
Under his new financial security, Huckabee seems very much unchanged from the candidate whose openness and straight talk provided an interesting contrast with Romney’s more studied and calculated stances and occasional gaffes, like Monday’s discussion of Obama’s alleged upbringing in Kenya.
Like Ronald Reagan, Huckabee comes across with a non-threatening manner that could appeal to the broader electorate. But though his governorship included acceptance of tax and fee increases to close budgetary shortfalls, his policy prescriptions are conventionally conservative: cutting spending “before you ever put taxes on the table” and replacing Medicare with a voucher program.
One thing that could precipitate his candidacy is his barely concealed antagonism toward Romney and Palin, whose name recognition helps them join him at the top of many early 2012 polls.
Huckabee has repeatedly criticized Romney’s Massachusetts health-care program, whose requirement that everyone buy insurance is similar to Barack Obama’s national plan. In “A Simple Government,” Huckabee notes that costs in Massachusetts have gone up and surveys show residents believe quality has gone down.
And the man who has made no secret of his continuing struggles against weight problems made clear he doesn’t share Palin’s outspoken criticism of first lady Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign or her tendency to oppose everything President Barack Obama favors.
One gets a sense Huckabee’s heart favors another White House bid but that his head warns him of the challenge in raising enough money to take on three potential financial juggernauts: Romney, Palin and Obama.
Of course, if Palin doesn’t run, it might not take much to convince Huckabee to challenge Romney.
• Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.