Politics & Policy

Mike Huckabee’s Home Stretch

Huckbaee at the GOP debate in Boulder, October 28, 2015. (Andrew Burton/Getty)

Des Moines, Iowa – Mike Huckabee is back where it all began. And where it soon might end.

Eight years ago, the little-known former Arkansas governor became a political celebrity when he won the Iowa caucuses after surging in the final two weeks and stunning Mitt Romney in a state where the former Massachusetts governor had vastly out-spent and out-organized the competition. Huckabee went on to win six more states, and though he didn’t come close to claiming the Republican nomination, his star was born. Iowa had put Huckabee on the map, and the charismatic Baptist-minister-by-training leveraged his sudden luminary status into several best-selling books and a popular Fox News show that made him a fortune. He owed it all to Iowa, a state he loved, and a state that loved him back.

Eight years removed from that triumph, Huckabee is sitting at a conference table in the second-floor suite of a hotel overlooking this city’s downtown. The Iowa caucuses are less than two weeks away, and Huckabee has come to address a “Campaign Finance Reform Roundtable” with local advocates. But the event offers little in the way of voter conversion. Twenty people are present in the cramped room; several are members of the media, three of them campaign staffers, and another two are children. At one point an excitable Asian man seated across from Huckabee raises his hand and asks why Republicans don’t campaign more often in California. He lives there, and came to Iowa to visit friends and watch the caucus process up close. Huckabee engages him in several minutes of sincere conversation; the man is impressed. But he tells me later that he is a green-card holder, and therefore couldn’t vote for Huckabee even if he wanted to.

Huckabee, meanwhile, 60 years old and visibly heavier after slimming down for his 2008 campaign, has nonetheless hustled to all 99 Iowa counties.

After the roundtable, Huckabee and his three-member team — including his daughter-slash-campaign manager, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and Hogan Gidley, Huckabee’s loyal longtime spokesman — depart the meeting in search of lunch. Walking with a considerable limp, Huckabee, who until recently used a cane following November knee surgery, saunters gingerly through the sky-tunnels to avoid the piercing cold and drifting snow outside. There are plenty of passers-by. Some turn and recognize the former governor, the onetime Iowa winner, the Fox News personality and conservative favorite. But many others hurry by. When he arrives for lunch at a mostly-empty burger joint Huckabee is not greeted by fans seeking autographs or selfies; just a salad topped with minced salmon that we both agree looks like canned tuna. He shrugs, takes a few bites, and tries to put a positive spin on the situation. “It’s not bad,” he says.

But it’s not good, either. The man who eight years ago won the most votes in the history of Iowa’s Republican caucuses now finds himself polling ninth in the state, according to the RealClearPolitics average, at 2.6 percent. (June was the last time any poll showed him reaching double-digits.) He trails a host of first-time candidates, including several, such as Chris Christie and John Kasich, who hardly spend any time here. Huckabee, meanwhile, 60 years old and visibly heavier after slimming down for his 2008 campaign, has nonetheless hustled to all 99 Iowa counties. But his hard work is not being rewarded. As Donald Trump and Ted Cruz draw colossal crowds and earn wall-to-wall coverage of their battle for Iowa, Huckabee hobbles through the state in relative obscurity, away from his wife, his grandchildren, and the beachfront home he always dreamed of, eating a dry salmon salad on a 10-degree day in Des Moines.

It all demands a rudimentary question: Why did Huckabee decide to put himself through this?

The simple answer is that the political bug never left him. Huckabee passed on the 2012 race, content to watch the carnage from his Fox News studio (and from his newly-constructed $3 million mansion in Florida.) The 2016 campaign was a different story. Huckabee had begun to grow restless, and says he felt called — spiritually and politically — to reenter the arena, convinced he possessed a uniquely attractive appeal among both blue-collar conservatives and evangelical Christians. He entered the race May 5, announcing to several thousand people in his hometown of Hope, Ark., that he would take them “from Hope to higher ground.” Huckabee projected confidence on that occasion, but in the months prior he had confided to friends significant concerns about lacking the financial and organizational support needed to win the nomination. “I don’t want to jump into a pool without any water,” he told them.

Yet that’s exactly what Huckabee did. And he watched with exasperation in the months that followed as longtime allies — people he felt certain would support him if he ran again in 2016 — threw themselves behind other candidates. The conservative lane of the race that Huckabee had hogged in 2008 was now crowded: Scott Walker, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, Ben Carson, and Rick Santorum vied for the support of conservatives and evangelicals in Iowa and elsewhere. But it was Cruz who emerged as the principal recipient of Huckabee’s former support, a fact that both mystifies and maddens Huckabee, who with a thinly-veiled resentment views the Texas senator as a spurious opportunist unfit to carry the torch of conservatism.

‘In politics, you know, it’s not like you can force people. You can’t bill them.’

So, knowing what he knows now, would Huckabee do it all over again? “I don’t regret jumping in. I think some people drained the water from the pool after we jumped in,” he says, chuckling. “I mean, we had a really great start. Frankly, there were quite a few people that had indicated that they would be helpful. And in politics, you know, it’s not like you can force people. You can’t bill them.”

Huckabee stops himself a moment later, perhaps knowing he sounds the part of a candidate that’s already lost. “But rather than look at that, I try to look at all the people who have so sacrificially given to my campaign,” he says. “These aren’t people with any expectation of sleeping in the Lincoln Bedroom. They’re not doing this because they want to protect their industry. Their industry is raising kids. Their industry is they want to live in a decent neighborhood. So for that reason I don’t have any regrets. None at all. If anything I’m grateful that I can honestly say with this campaign that it was not financed by an elite few; it was financed by people who really believe in my candidacy.”

He switches like this, back and forth between past and present tense, throughout our conversation. It lends itself to a reasonable conclusion that Huckabee’s campaign is a lost cause. Yet he clearly believes otherwise, and offers an assessment that while arguably detached from the realities of the GOP race, is impossible to repudiate.

“Quite frankly I wouldn’t be doing 150 events in January in Iowa if I didn’t think we had a shot to pull this off,” Huckabee says. “I mean, I just wouldn’t. I’m not that stupid.”

The polls, of course, could be wrong. Very wrong. Still, why has Huckabee, an adopted Iowan who polled in the mid-teens at the campaign’s outset, dropped all the way to the low single digits? His theory is that Iowans are drawn to new candidates — like the boys in his junior high school who were enamored of the new girl in town — and that their fascination will fade by the time votes are cast. But the warning signs were visible even before the Republican race got underway. Last January, when Huckabee and a host of future presidential candidates descended on Iowa for a cattle call here in Des Moines, I went to a bookstore in Ames where he was signing copies of his newly-released book, God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy. Dozens of people lined up to purchase copies and ask Huckabee for signatures and photos. Yet of all the people I spoke with there, most of whom had backed Huckabee in 2008, not one would commit to doing so again in 2016. The reasons were essentially the same: A lot had happened since 2008. (Including the tea party, Twitter, and Obamacare, for starters.)

Huckabee’s campaign-in-waiting dismissed that narrative at the time, only to see a steady stream of longtime supporters — including prominent Iowans such as social-conservative leader Bob Vander Plaats, who chaired Huckabee’s 2008 Iowa campaign — switch their support to Cruz. Huckabee, despite his “new girl” theory, can do nothing to negate the advantage of being a fresh face in an anti-establishment environment. Nor can he hope that the fascination will fade. He now seems to recognize that winning Iowa isn’t realistic; not when he trails the leaders by 25 points. So he must finish “near the top” in order to continue his campaign, he says. That too will be hard. But this is the home stretch — of this race, and probably of Huckabee’s political career. The grandfather of five walked away from a multi-million-dollar Fox News contract to run for president a second time; whether he regrets it or not, friends say he’ll campaign to the finish line. So his agenda is packed this month with visits to seemingly every parcel of the state. The grueling schedule doubles as a rebuttal against rumors that Huckabee might prefer to bow out just before February 1 rather than risk the humiliation of a seventh- or eighth-place finish in the caucuses.

His team laughs off such speculation and insists Huckabee will compete in the caucuses. But some Republicans here still believe a pre-Iowa exit is at least conceivable, and for the same reason that rumors circulated around Christmas-time that some Huckabee allies were entertaining the last-ditch notion of throwing their support to another candidate: It could hurt Cruz’s chances of winning Iowa.

Indeed, the hostility toward Cruz runs so deep among Huckabee and his supporters that destroying Ted Cruz has at times seemed to take precedence over promoting Mike Huckabee. That dynamic was amplified last month when Politico published audio of Cruz telling donors in Manhattan that same-sex marriage should be decided by the states, and that fighting for traditional marriage would not be a top-three priority for a Cruz administration. Huckabee has incorporated the incident into his stump speech and his campaign has blasted out dozens of press releases highlighting Cruz’s alleged “hypocrisy.” During one 24-hour period this week, Huckabee sent no fewer than eight tweets referencing Cruz’s statements on marriage, including this tweet Tuesday evening: “I don’t have an Ivy League law degree, but I know about God’s law. Life and marriage are not state issues — they’re non-negotiable.”

The hostility toward Cruz runs so deep among Huckabee and his supporters that destroying Ted Cruz has at times seemed to take precedence over promoting Mike Huckabee.

Huckabee, asked why he’s singled out Cruz for such harsh criticism, says it’s because Cruz sells himself as a “consistent conservative” while shifting his stances on numerous issues. He rattles off the list: trade-promotion authority, immigration visas, birthright citizenship, John Roberts’s qualification for the Supreme Court, and most recently, ethanol. But the rift runs deeper than policy differences; it’s apparent that Huckabee thinks Cruz is fundamentally untrustworthy and deceptive. (He also seems to relish taunting Cruz; not long after our lunch, he tells the audience at a nearby renewable-fuels summit that he was born in Hope, Ark. — also Bill Clinton’s hometown — so they need not worry about his White House eligibility.) And tellingly, Huckabee recoils at the suggestion that, by nature of the two courting the same support, they share the same values.

“You said I believe the same things he does. That’s the point — I’m not sure we do,” Huckabee says. “I believe Ted Cruz will say he is staunchly pro-life. But he’s never come out and said he would staunchly defend the personhood of an unborn child. I don’t know why. But he’s never said that. He told the donors in Manhattan that the whole issue of same-sex marriage is an issue for the states. How do you say an issue that is more of a moral issue than a political issue is geographical? That’s not the way he’s presented it in Iowa.”

Huckabee’s genteel charm is gone now, replaced with unreserved contempt. He continues to prosecute Cruz: “He rails against crony capitalism but he got a loan from Goldman Sachs that most Iowans are never going to be able to get at 3 percent. It’s a favored loan. And he didn’t report it. He got another one from Citibank. . . .  Don’t go up there and collect millions and millions of dollars on Wall Street and then talk about how evil Wall Street is and talk about how New York values are terrible. Well, if they’re that terrible, go give the money back that all those New York people — and their values — provided to the campaign.”

Such criticisms could easily be read as sour grapes; Huckabee is hurt that the people who supported him eight years ago have found a new favorite this time around. And yet beneath Huckabee’s broadsides is an acknowledgment that Cruz has outmaneuvered him by better reading the mood of the electorate. Huckabee admits that despite his Fox News show offering him a birds-eye view of the change-driving conflicts within the GOP, he underestimated the fact that voters “are more angry than I’ve ever seen them before.” Huckabee does many things well — he is among the finest GOP communicators of his generation — but anger is not one of them.

“One of my defining statements was, ‘I’m a conservative but I’m not mad at anybody over it.’ And that’s who I am,” Huckabee says with a shrug. “I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy, not glass-half-empty. And I do think this year, the candidates who are the most strident sometimes are connecting because people are angry and they want someone to reflect their anger.”

The candidate who’s done so most effectively is Trump. And Huckabee, like many veteran Republicans, has cycled through various stages in assessing the real estate mogul’s impact. Once clearly bewildered by him, Huckabee now credits Trump with focusing the campaign on important issues, and sounds downright incensed at the notion that some Republicans would not support him should he win the nomination.

It’s probably fair at this point to count Huckabee among the growing number of Republicans who would prefer Trump to Cruz if faced with a binary choice. But he’s not going there — not yet, anyway. With less than two weeks remaining in what’s almost certainly his final campaign, Mike Huckabee is keeping his eyes on the prize. And if that proves fruitless, well, he’s also keeping his sense of humor.

When I ask the obligatory question — would he support Trump or Cruz, if that choice presented itself? — he looks up with a mouthful of salad and grins. “Huckabee.”

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