Politics & Policy

How Mike Huckabee Plans to Move Beyond Evangelicals

Huckabee at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition. (Scott Olson/Getty)

Experience: That’ll be one of the primary selling points of Mike Huckabee’s presidential campaign, which he formally launches on Tuesday.

At a time when many Republican voters are hungry for something new, Huckabee will try to persuade them to go with the tried and true. Not only has the former Arkansas governor already been through the soul-crushing grind of a presidential campaign, but, from 1996 to 2007, he also spent ten-and-a-half years as governor of Arkansas.

Huckabee, a former Baptist preacher, is known for his appeal to Evangelicals and other social conservatives, but this time around he’ll use experience to contrast with the Obama model as well as with his Republican rivals in the hope of expanding his coalition beyond that slice of primary voters. Of the five Republicans who have announced their candidacies, three — Florida’s Marco Rubio, Texas’s Ted Cruz, and Kentucky’s Rand Paul — are freshman senators, and two — former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson — have never held elected office.

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“The GOP primary electorate understands the importance of leading a state,” says a member of the governor’s nascent campaign. Would-be candidates like Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Chris Christie, and John Kasich will also be able to boast that credential if they decide to jump in the race, and the first two are almost certain to do so, but Huckabee’s team will argue that his experience in Arkansas makes him uniquely equipped to take on Hillary Clinton.

Huckabee will launch his campaign in Hope, Ark., the hometown he shares with former president Bill Clinton. The 42nd president introduced himself to the nation as the man from Hope in a 1992 political ad, in which he talked about “bringing Hope back to the American dream.”

The video that previewed the themes of Huckabee’s campaign, put together by his longtime strategist Bob Wickers, is packed with images of the Clintons. As the video opens, they’re shown holding hands across the aisle of an airplane, before another image flashes on screen showing a disgruntled Bill Clinton looking on as Huckabee addresses a crowd.

Huckabee took over as governor in “Bill Clinton’s Arkansas,” Arkansas political reporter Rex Nelson says. As Nelson tells it, Huckabee was able to take on and defeat the Clinton apparatus and the state’s strong Democratic party. The message: He’s the candidate whose experience has best equipped him to do something similar across the country today.

That’s not the only way to look at Huckabee’s record in Arkansas, where getting elected in what was then a blue state required not only the assistance of Clinton confidant Dick Morris, who served as his political consultant for many years and remained in contact with him during his 2008 bid, but the adoption of some relatively moderate views on taxes and spending.

RELATED: Why Mike Huckabee’s Cornpone Politics Drives Me Crazy — And Will Never Work

That hasn’t necessarily changed since. Huckabee may be the lone Republican in the field who isn’t championing entitlement reform, for instance. In fact, he’s giving programs like Social Security and Medicare a full-throated defense. “I’ll protect Social Security and Medicare,” he says in his preview video. “Washington has done enough lying and stealing. I’ll never rob seniors of what our government promised them and even forced them to pay for.”

Getting elected in Arkansas, then a blue state, required not only the assistance of Clinton confidant Dick Morris but also the adoption of some relatively moderate views on taxes and spending.

Those sorts of views, and the tax increases he didn’t protest as governor, have earned him the enmity of the behemoth of conservative outside groups, such as the Club for Growth, whose president has promised the group “will make sure that Republican primary voters thoroughly examine his exceptionally poor record of raising taxes and spending as governor.”

If Huckabee is, to some conservatives, maddeningly stubborn in his fiscal heterodoxy, he’ll be charting a different course on foreign policy than he did in 2008, an area where he struggled. Then, he called for the closure of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and for “treat[ing] others the way you’d like to be treated” in matters of foreign affairs and diplomacy. In fact, he called that “the fundamental issue that has to be reestablished in our dealings with other countries” as the Bush presidency drew to a close. This time around, he’s sounded downright hawkish, promising to “lead with moral clarity in a dangerous world” and to “keep all the options on the table in order to defeat the evil forces of radical Islam.”

Huckabee shocked many with his 2008 come-from-behind victory in Iowa, but ultimately his shoestring campaign was never a serious threat to win the nomination. Besides the slightly different pitch, this time around, he’ll likely have more money. The Arkansas poultry magnate Ronnie Cameron, who has showered money on an array of conservative causes, has, according to CNN, said he will throw his weight behind Huckabee if he runs.

RELATED: Why Mike Huckabee’s Advice to Christians About Military Service Is Wrong

His advisers also believe he can expand his appeal beyond Evangelicals, his 2008 base, by assembling a coalition of what one describes as “Americans who earn less than $65,000 a year; seniors; and people in the middle of the country.”  Even if Huckabee can expand his coalition, however, there are more candidates who can eat away at his base of Evangelical conservatives — people like Ted Cruz and Scott Walker who are already using the goodwill they’ve earned with the Tea Party to court the religious Right.

#related#Huckabee’s greatest challenge is perhaps best put by his former adviser, Dick Morris.

“I think that if Mike runs . . . the problem as he moves past Iowa is that the media refuses to treat him on the merits of who he is: a ten-year governor of the state of Arkansas, and they only treat him as a former minister, a former Baptist minister, something he was 20 or 30 years ago,” Morris said in January. “They don’t deal with him in terms of the record that he amassed in Arkansas, and as a result he’s never hurdled that divide to become a secular candidate rather than a religious candidate.”

Huckabee, if early indications are to be believed, may be starting to comprehend the problem. Whether he can solve it by touting his experience against the Clinton machine in Arkansas will do a lot to determine the durability of his second White House bid.

— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor of National Review.

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