The conventional wisdom about Mitt Romney’s vice-presidential short list, according to a handful of Romney insiders, may be wrong. Instead of picking a straitlaced Midwestern senator such as Ohio’s Rob Portman, or an outspoken northeastern Republican governor such as Chris Christie, there is a chance Romney will tap an evangelical from the South.
And the name on the lips of Romney friends and supporters isn’t a rising southern senator or a current Dixie governor. He has been out of office for five years, resides on a beach in the Florida panhandle, and hosts a television show.
In other words, Mike Huckabee, the bass-guitar-playing former governor.
Yes, according to several sources close to the Romney campaign, who insisted on anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the vice-presidential search, the 56-year-old Arkansan may be included in the veep mix.
To many Republicans, a ticket with a Mormon bishop and a Baptist preacher isn’t far-fetched. “In a way, it’s almost a dream ticket,” says Ed Rollins, the chairman of Huckabee’s 2008 presidential campaign. “He’s substantive and knows domestic policy, and his personality wouldn’t overshadow Romney’s.”
For now, it isn’t clear whether Huckabee is going to be vetted, or that he’s anywhere near Romney’s short list. But he is, at the very least, being discussed. As one Romney ally puts it, tapping Huckabee would energize tea-party conservatives, evangelicals, and related voters who soured on Romney during the GOP primaries. He’s also not a sweat-inducing pick, since he was vetted by the Beltway press during his presidential run four years ago.
A second top Romney source is less enthusiastic about Huckabee’s conservative appeal but acknowledges that the former governor is probably on the “larger list of about 40 names” that’s being debated within Romney’s inner circle. “People have made that suggestion,” the source said, during conversations with Matt Rhoades, the campaign manager, and tight-lipped Romney confidants such as Scott Romney, the candidate’s older brother, and Ann, Romney’s wife.
Over the next month, that larger list will be whittled down, but the ongoing talks among Romney’s broad group of advisers are reportedly lively and wide-ranging, with the usual names, such as Portman and Senator Marco Rubio, being mentioned, along with other, less obvious options such as Huckabee.
This is a time to “be frank and open about our options,” a third Romney source says, and if Huckabee rises during the consideration process, it won’t be a surprise. Romney’s camp, the source explains, may be tight-lipped in the official search, which is being led by longtime aide Beth Myers, but when it comes to soliciting advice from outside advisers and donors, it is open to suggestions.
What matters to Romney’s campaign, more than anything, sources say, is beating President Obama, and if a slightly unconventional or unexpected vice-presidential selection is part of that equation, they’re willing to do it. Experience and competence are two key factors, but they’re not the only ones.
The growing buzz about Huckabee within segments of Romney World delights social-conservative leaders and Huckabee allies, who have long hoped that Romney would reach out to the GOP’s evangelical voters with the veep selection. “If he’s not on the short list, somebody ought to put him there,” says Hogan Gidley, a former adviser to Huckabee. “He’d bring excitement to a ticket that’s lacking that, to some degree, right now. Beyond that, he’d bring a huge grassroots organization, and, to put it simply, the South.”
Veteran conservative activist Ralph Reed agrees. “Huckabee would be an outstanding and inspired choice,” he says. “He has tremendous support among evangelicals and conservatives, and he knows how to frame issues in a way that makes it clear he has core convictions and he does it in a winsome way.”
“Whatever differences Romney and Huckabee had during the 2008 campaign, and I don’t think they were significant, they have put that behind them,” Reed adds. “Governor Huckabee and Governor Romney, from what I can tell, have a good relationship, and each of them respects the work and views of the other.”
Romney campaign aides say Huckabee and Romney have healed any lingering wounds throughout the past year, mostly during the public forums hosted by Huckabee during the primary campaign, and behind the scenes before television tapings. Huckabee, they say, may not have received a lot of attention as a Romney supporter, but he has been supportive during key moments in the campaign, such as when Democrats attacked Romney as a flip-flopper on abortion. Huckabee, speaking on Fox News, favorably compared Romney’s conversion to Ronald Reagan’s.
Frank Tsamoutales, a Huckabee adviser and current director of HuckPAC, Huckabee’s political-action committee, tells National Review Online that the former governor is open-minded about his political future.
“He would certainly listen and entertain the idea,” Tsamoutales says. “It’s a serious question and he’d take it seriously. Now, he is extraordinarily happy with the way things are going for him, but he also has the capacity and energy to transition into a presidential campaign as a running mate, should he be asked.”
Other sources close to Huckabee echo Tsamoutales, noting that the former governor is busy with his Fox News program, which airs on weekends, and The Mike Huckabee Show, a nationally syndicated radio program distributed by Cumulus Media. He relishes the jobs and his home on Florida’s Blue Mountain Beach, which cost approximately $3 million to build, but “just because he’s comfortable doesn’t mean he’s going to stay there forever,” Gidley says.
Last month, when asked about the vice presidency, Huckabee demurred. “I haven’t gotten a call and I doubt I will, so I just merrily go about doing my business,” he said on Fox News. “I think his better pick is Marco Rubio.”
Regarding Huckabee’s Fox News contract, one GOP operative predicts that it wouldn’t play a role in the decision, since Huckabee could potentially take an unpaid leave for several months, from August through November, with the opportunity to come back in the event the ticket lost.
“I don’t think the door is closed,” says Alice Stewart, a former Huckabee adviser and spokesperson for his 2008 campaign. “So far, he’s stayed out of the mix and he loves doing his radio show, but if he felt it was God’s will to get back” into electoral politics, he would. Private prayer, she says, played a major part in his decision not to run this cycle, but he hasn’t ruled out the veep spot.
Stewart, who traveled on the trail with him last run, also shrugs off any perceived past drama with Romney. Huckabee has a “deep respect, on a personal level, for the candidates he faced in the 2008 primaries,” she says.
Beyond his media work, Huckabee would give the ticket an additional dose of gubernatorial experience. He served as governor in Little Rock for over a decade and amassed a record as a conservative on social issues, but as a big-government Republican on several tax-increase proposals. He also increased state spending. During his 2008 run, he ran a populist campaign similar to Rick Santorum’s 2012 bid, blasting Wall Street greed.
Of course, should Huckabee make the short list, he’ll have plenty of critics. Most observers think Romney needs to pick up moderates and independents, not evangelicals and southerners. Choosing a pundit and talk-radio host might send the wrong message. “I don’t believe he’d help the ticket,” says Ruth Griffin, a well-known Romney supporter in New Hampshire and a former Huckabee endorser. “His exposure on radio and television is not necessarily positive,” she says. “I supported him last time because I believed he’d bring new life to the party, and because I didn’t believe it was Romney’s time. Since then, Huckabee has been overexposed.”
The upside of Huckabee, however, is too tempting for Romney to ignore, says Bob Vander Plaats, an influential social conservative. “Picking Huckabee would be a smart move,” he says. “I’m not at all surprised to hear it being talked about. Romney knows he has a problem with the base and he needs to build a bridge to that base, so Huckabee, or someone like him, would make sense. Social conservatives are keeping an eye on who Romney chooses to surround him.”
On Saturday, May 12, Romney will give the commencement address at Liberty University in Virginia, which was founded by the late Jerry Falwell. Romney officials, many of whom declined to speak about the veep search, say that this speech is critical for Romney, who has spent the post-primary season reaching out to social conservatives. They say he will underscore his commitment to their values and pledge to battle with them for religious freedom throughout the campaign.
Romney will not mention Huckabee in his address, but it will still be a message for his supporters. Many within the university community, such as Liberty board members Tim and Beverly LaHaye, supported Huckabee during his run. Huckabee has also been a speaker on campus in recent years, talking with students about Jesus Christ.
“In a close election, Huckabee would help,” says Rollins, who steered Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign. “Picking him would show that Romney is a much bigger man that most people thought. It would show that he has what it takes to win.”
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.