SIOUX CITY, Iowa -- It was just another routine photo-op at a Republican field office Tuesday morning until Mike Huckabee decided to improvise.
In a cheeky attempt to bring himself level with Cody Hoefert -- the 7-foot-tall co-chairman of the Iowa Republican Party -- Huckabee pulled up a chair and began to climb atop it.
He didn’t have to complete the physical joke to get the laughs he was looking for from the group of gray-haired volunteers who had assembled for his appearance with Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst.
“Golly!” the 5-11 Huckabee marveled. “I’ve never felt like a shrimp like this before.”
This was vintage Huckabee: the born showman and 59-year-old class clown, whose brand of innocuous humor and deep-dimpled affability made him such a hit during his 2008 presidential campaign in this staunchly conservative stretch of the nation’s first voting state.
“People here in Iowa, obviously, love him,” Ernst said of Huckabee. “He is such a genuine man. … Everybody here knows him.”
Indeed, memories of Huckabee’s up-from-obscurity win in 2008 remain fresh for many of the older, conservative voters who still dominate the Republican caucuses.
But outside of Iowa, other political observers tend to forget about him. National pollsters do it every time they neglect to include his name in their 2016 surveys, even though Huckabee polls consistently in the first tier when he is listed as an option.
With the unofficial race for the White House set to kick off the day after the November midterms, it is not Huckabee but rather the younger, shinier conservative leaders like Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio who have drawn the lion’s share of scrutiny on the GOP side.
The reasons are evident why Huckabee’s potential reemergence is being underplayed in the national discourse. First and foremost is the general suspicion that he’s not sincere when professing to consider a second presidential run.
After all, this line of thinking goes, he was saying the very same things four years ago.
Back then, just as many suspected, he decided not to trade in his rewarding contract with The Fox News Channel, and the enviable lifestyle that accompanies it, for the uncertain and grueling slog of another national campaign.
Now, Huckabee is an even wealthier man, and he is clearly still enjoying himself.
The formerly obese Arkansan, who once documented his loss of more than 110 pounds in a book titled “Quit Digging Your Grave With a Knife and Fork,” has put back on a significant amount of weight.
Bolstering the notion that Huckabee will sit out 2016 is the perception that his time in the national limelight has come and gone.
For a Republican Party desperate to rebrand itself and develop its reach in national elections, the former Arkansas governor -- who last held office nearly eight years ago -- can seem anachronistic in comparison to the aforementioned first-term senators, who have been elbowing for early position to become the next GOP standard-bearer.
But as he stumped for Ernst in conservative western Iowa, it was abundantly clear that Huckabee’s clout far surpasses that of a political nostalgia act.
Among the conservative rank-and-file here, he is every bit a man of the moment.
Why is that?
It’s because Huckabee isn’t just a familiar face from a few years back. Instead, he is the jovial and charismatic friend that loyal Fox News viewers welcome into their living rooms each and every week.
Now in its seventh year on the air, “Huckabee”—which combines political commentary, celebrity interviews and musical variety—is a weekend stalwart for the highest-rated cable news network.
New episodes and reruns occupy a total of four hours of valuable airtime on Saturday and Sunday nights, providing the show’s host with hundreds of hours of free advertising that hits some of the most reliable Republican voters.
It’s the kind of media exposure that any of the more frequently talked about GOP contenders can only dream of.
Consider the manner in which an array of Iowa Republican activists and volunteers greeted Huckabee as he made the rounds with Ernst.
“I watch you about three times every weekend!” one white-haired woman raved as she embraced the politician turned TV personality.
“And why not?” the once and potentially future candidate shot back.
“We really watch your show all the time,” a heavy-set man, his beaming wife by his side, told Huckabee during a stop in Council Bluffs later in the day as the former governor held up the man’s camera and posed for a full-service selfie.
No one is more aware of the value that this instant familiarity with core GOP voters would bring to a second presidential bid than the prospective candidate himself.
As a driver shuttled him between events, Huckabee told RealClearPolitics that his work on Fox has put him in a “very good place to be” politically as a self-imposed decision date looms in the early spring of next year.
“When I came up here eight years ago, nobody knew who I was,” he said. “I had to spell my name. They didn’t recognize me, and that was true all over the country. And now I come back, and I’ve been in these people’s homes every week.”
The 2016 Republican field figures to include several candidates who enjoy and excel at retail politicking. But few, if any, of the likely GOP contenders enjoy the kind of deep-seated emotional bond that saturates Huckabee’s grip-and-grin sessions.
During his latest visit to Iowa, people passed him hand-written notes and whispered heartfelt encouragement.
One suspenders-clad man wiped away tears as he asked Huckabee to consider throwing his hat in the ring once again.
“I’ve admired you for years,” another woman told him. “Maybe you could go for president again.”
“We’ll see,” Huckabee shot back. “I’ve done dumber things.”
Though he clearly spoke in jest, the suggestion that leaving Fox would be an imprudent move is not without some merit.
Huckabee recently inked another three-year deal with the network—a contract that includes a clause allowing either side to terminate the agreement if circumstances change in the coming months.
But for a working-class kid with a gift for gab, Huckabee is living the kind of life he scarcely could have dreamed of while growing up in Hope, Ark.
And nothing quite matches the platform for guaranteed influence and riches that Fox News provides.
Asked about his decision-making process this time around, Huckabee sounded conflicted.
“I’ve got four grandkids, and I really care what’s going to happen to them,” he said. “If I were to create an exploratory committee or tell people that I’m going to run, obviously, I’ve just crossed a threshold, and I’m done [at Fox]. So I’ve got to be very thoughtful about this. I can’t do it lightheartedly. I can’t put my toe in the water. I jump in the deep end from Day One or I don’t do it.”
Huckabee and his team have set April of next year as the cutoff date for when he needs to decide, but the consensus among many plugged-in conservatives in his orbit is that he is already determined to take that leap.
“Mike Huckabee is 100 percent running,” said Des Moines-based conservative radio host Steve Deace. “No doubt about it at all. He’s in.”
Deace—who provided Huckabee with valuable air cover during his rapid rise to the top of the GOP pack in 2007—said he came to that conclusion after “several” public and private conversations with Huckabee over the last few months.
And David Lane, a typically reticent conservative political operative who is close to Huckabee, agreed with Deace’s assessment.
“I’m watching the chess pieces moving around the board, and I can tell you he’s running,” Lane told RCP in a rare interview. “There’s no question about it to me.”
Next month, Lane is organizing an all-expenses-paid international trip for 50 Christian conservative pastors, who just so happen to hail from the four early voting states on the 2016 calendar (19 from Iowa, two from New Hampshire, 22 from South Carolina, and seven from Nevada).
Leading the 10-day excursion to Poland, England and California—a trip that ostensibly is designed to highlight the leadership of Pope John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan—will be none other than Mike Huckabee.
Robert Cramer, who won Huckabee’s endorsement earlier this year in his failed candidacy for the U.S. House in Iowa’s 3rd District, is among the evangelical leaders from the state who are booked on the trip.
“He’ll want to know how do we see things on the ground, and we’ll want to know from him, what’s your economic plan and what’s your plan for dealing with these foreign crises going on,” Cramer said. “Having been a governor is a real asset in running for president. And I think he has broadened his base by being on Fox, so I’d have to say he hits the ground in first place.”
If Huckabee does run, it is nearly impossible to imagine a path to the Republican nomination that does not include another victory in the Iowa caucuses.
This time, however, the expectations for him to succeed will be far higher than they were in 2008.
It’s a concern that Huckabee’s political team is working to address as they prepare in earnest for a potential bid.
The intensity of their early planning, they all say, is like night and day compared to the more halfhearted approach that they took before the 2012 cycle, when Huckabee never really set the gears in motion.
Their work is largely being funded by a group Huckabee launched recently called America Takes Action (ATA)—a 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organization that is not required by law to disclose its donors.
Helming the ATA ship is a quartet of political operatives who are more or less reprising the roles they played during Huckabee’s 2008 run for president.
The non-Arkansans of the group are California-based Bob Wickers and Chip Saltsman, who lives in Nashville.
Back in Little Rock are Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who was her father’s national political director in 2008, and Alice Stewart, who handles press.
The foursome holds conference calls at least once a week, in which they discuss Huckabee’s messaging, scheduling and fundraising.
Joining them in these virtual meetings is Chad Gallagher, another longtime Huckabee confidant, who now directs Huck PAC—the political action committee that endorses and steers financial support to candidates running in this year’s midterms.
Saltsman, Stewart and Gallagher all traveled with Huckabee on his most recent Iowa swing—his fifth such sojourn there since the 2012 election.
Huckabee’s strategists have drawn up a blueprint for the prospective candidate to consider, which lays out a specific timeline, including when he will have to make decisions about whether to jump into the race and a benchmark list of “things that have to happen” should he get in.
These efforts in and of themselves mark a significant change in approach from four years ago, but the biggest difference between Huckabee’s mentality now compared to then, all of his advisers agree, has been his renewed commitment to wooing major donors.
Fundraising has never been a task that Huckabee particularly enjoyed, nor has it been one of his strong suits as a politician.
In his 2008 run, he raised just $16.6 million—less than half the amount that rival Republican contender Mitt Romney contributed to his own campaign.
This time around, RealClearPolitics has learned, Huckabee’s strategists have set a goal of raising $25 million to $30 million for his prospective primary campaign and the same amount through a supporting super PAC.
Huckabee likes to tell prospective donors that he would only dive back into presidential politics if he knows there is enough water for him in the pool.
According to him, the deep end is looking a lot more inviting than it did in the past.
“I couldn’t get people to return the calls eight years ago,” Huckabee said. “We’d often go to somebody—a potential donor—and sit in the outer office and finally get in for a five-minute courtesy visit, and it was a pat on the head and ‘thanks for coming by.’ I now have people—some of them the same people—calling, wanting to come to visit me.”
One of those key people with whom Huckabee has met is Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who can lay plausible claim to being the most coveted man in Republican presidential politics.
During the 2012 primaries, Adelson and his wife, Miriam, singlehandedly kept Newt Gingrich’s campaign afloat via $15 million in contributions to a super PAC that supported the former House speaker.
Adelson is reportedly weighing which Republican contender to patronize in 2016, and there is reason to believe he will consider Huckabee.
The two men are friends and speak occasionally by phone.
More importantly, Huckabee’s longtime advocacy for bolstering the U.S. relationship with Israel—the issue that concerns Adelson above all others—is another factor that could provide him with an edge over other contenders who are newer to the cause.
In New York last November, Adelson bestowed Huckabee with the Adelson Defender of Israel award at a Zionist Organization of America dinner in New York, calling the Arkansan “a great person, a great American and a great Zionist.”
Asked if he considers himself well-positioned to win the “Sheldon sweepstakes” in 2016, Huckabee was frank.
“Gee, I would hope so,” he told RCP. “I wouldn’t presume on anyone or anything, but if I did do this, would I love to have his support? Yeah. I don’t want to be subtle.”
At a Republican National Committee meeting last January, Huckabee caused a stir when he used some colorful language to deride the Democrats’ oft-trumpeted charge that Republicans are waging a “war on women.”
“If the Democrats want to insult the women of America by making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or reproductive system without the help of the government, then so be it,” Huckabee said.
Democrats pounced, and the media did, too.
Whatever the intent of his remarks, the discernible effect of a white, Southern man spouting off about young women’s libidos was enough to send some of the Republican officials on hand straight to the hotel bar.
For GOP reformers, the incident lent credence to the idea that Huckabee was a political dinosaur, not someone positioned to lead the nation toward the third decade of the 21st century.
But the “libido” episode masked a surprising feature of Huckabee’s political resume that could prove valuable: He has long been more popular among women than men.
“I would argue that people who think he’s weak with women are far off,” his daughter told RCP. “Based on the research and polling we’ve done, it’s one of his strongest areas, and I think a large part of that is his show on Fox.”
Huckabee may be far from the ideal candidate to attract the unmarried women with whom the Republican Party is so desperate to make inroads, but in the context of a GOP primary fight that appears likely to feature an all-male slate of candidates, he would begin in a strong position to win the female votes that initially matter most.
A September CNN poll of Iowa Republicans showed that in a field of potential contenders, Huckabee was the top choice of 15 percent of Iowa Republican men and 27 percent of women.
That result was good enough for first place overall in Iowa—a position that Huckabee has held in every survey of the state this year, save one.
He is even holding his own in secular New Hampshire, where he finished a distant third place in 2008, though few expect that he would compete heavily there.
It is in these early poll numbers where Huckabee most immediately distinguishes himself from Rick Santorum—another former GOP White House hopeful with a penchant for being underestimated, who is also thinking about giving it another shot.
“Santorum’s got a better ground game, but that can diminish and dissolve as soon as Huckabee gets in,” said Dave Davidson, an Iowa-based political photographer who backed Huckabee in 2008 and Santorum in 2012. “Cruz is really going to be the biggest threat, I think, because he’s new.”
In interviews and other public appearances, Huckabee bristles over being pigeonholed as the “Christian conservative candidate.”
He would much rather talk about his views on the economy or his 10½-year tenure as governor, when he worked with a heavily Democratic legislature.
Huckabee wants to be regarded as the guy who can appeal to downscale, blue-collar voters in rustbelt Ohio every bit as much as the weekly churchgoers in Le Mars, Iowa, or Greenville, S.C.
But in Iowa, in particular—where 60 percent of 2008 GOP caucus-goers identified themselves as evangelicals—there is no doubt that it is his deep connection to the religious right that makes him so formidable.
On the hot-button issues that tend to motivate his base, Huckabee avoids fastidiously even the faintest whiff of waffling—an approach that may scare a lot of national Republican strategists but one that rouses Hawkeye Republicans.
On no front is this approach more evident than in Huckabee’s stalwart opposition to same-sex marriage.
In a radio interview earlier this month, he even offered the prospect of renouncing his party affiliation and becoming an independent if the GOP were to “abdicate” on the issue.
Huckabee now characterizes that pronouncement as a “rhetorical statement” rather than a “threat,” but his intent to lay down a marker was clear.
No one’s ever going to accuse Mike Huckabee of waffling on social issues.
But could his steadfastness on gay marriage prove to be an albatross in a general election setting? Huckabee doesn’t think so.
Asked about the seismic shift toward public support for same-sex marriage in recent years—a change that has been most dramatic among younger voters—Huckabee purported to being unconcerned about the political ramifications for him and others who share his view.
“The long-term solution is stick to your principles,” he said. “Because I think people—even if they disagree with you on the issue—what they don’t want is a person who’s always changing with the political winds.”
Huckabee added that he “absolutely” believes popular opinion on the issue could swing back toward his view. He pointed to a pair of specific cases -- where pastors and wedding vendors were facing judicial scrutiny -- as evidence that proponents of same-sex marriage had gone too far.
“Remember when everyone said it’s not really going to affect anybody else?” he said. “Well, suddenly it’s affecting everybody else. So here’s the point: Everything that many of us said were reasons to not be for this wholesale change in the definition of marriage -- everything we’ve said has come true.”
As his vehicle pulled into a private airport hanger, Huckabee’s aides signaled to him that it was time to end the interview.
But he wasn’t ready to go just yet. This was a topic that he relished delving into.
He pointed out that President Obama had opposed same-sex marriage as recently as 2½ years ago and had during the 2008 campaign explained that position by noting that “God is in the mix.”
“The question I think someone should pose to Obama is, ‘Were you lying then, or are you lying now, or did God rewrite the Scripture that you were basing your view on, and you were the only one who got the new version?’” Huckabee said, his intonation growing more animated as an aide opened the door for him.
He remained seated in the vehicle.
“I mean, what else is there as an option?” Huckabee continued. “Some of us didn’t get the new version, so we haven’t just changed our decisions because it’s a different political wind.”
As he finally relented to his aides’ entreaties and prepared to depart Iowa once again, Huckabee offered an additional thought:
“I think I can articulate that view and why it’s important. Because I’m not afraid to talk about it.”