Mike Huckabee, the folksy former governor, preacher and television host, entered the 2016 presidential race on Tuesday with a base of loyal supporters from his prior White House run, but he faces a cast of potential rivals that is larger and stronger than in 2008.
A favorite of social conservative and evangelical voters, Huckabee, 59, has remained in the public eye and in voters’ living rooms through a Fox News show. But the former Arkansas governor has been out of office for more than eight years and will be running against some Republican candidates who are calling for generational change.
Huckabee announced his presidential bid in Hope, Ark., where both he and former President Bill Clinton grew up. The lessons he learned there — from praying twice daily in school, to his parents’ instilling the importance of hard work and the golden rule, to learning how to safely handle firearms — grounded his life and shaped his view of the exceptional nature of the United States, Huckabee said.
“Folks, it is a long way from a little brick rent house on 2nd Street in Hope, Ark., to the White House. But here in this small town called Hope, I was raised to believe that where a person started didn’t mean that’s where he had to stop,” Huckabee said, before unveiling a campaign motto. “I always believed that a kid could go from Hope to higher ground.”
Huckabee criticized the national debt, joblessness, foreign policy, polarization and treatment of veterans under President Obama, who he said won the White House as an inexperienced freshman senator who gave “great speeches.”
“We were promised hope but it was just talk, and now we need the kind of change that really could get America from hope to higher ground,” Huckabee said, before turning to his tenure in Arkansas. “… I learned how to govern and I learned how to lead.”
Huckabee said he worked with a then-Democratic-controlled legislature to cut taxes, rebuild roads, improve student test scores, raise family incomes and fight corruption.
If elected president, Huckabee pledged to not cut Social Security and Medicare benefits and to overhaul the tax system. A balanced federal budget, term limits on the judiciary and Congress, and a muscular foreign policy would also be top priorities, he said.
“We will no longer merely try to contain jihadism, we will conquer it,” Huckabee said. “We will deal with jihadis just as we would deal with deadly snakes. And let there be no doubt, Israel will know, as will the whole world, that we are their trusted friend, and the ayatollahs of Iran will know that hell will freeze over before they get a nuclear weapon.”
Huckabee is the sixth GOP candidate to officially enter the race. On Monday, Dr. Ben Carson and businesswoman Carly Fiorina announced long-shot plans to seek the White House, joining a trio of Republican senators who previously declared their candidacies — Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida.
Chief among the obstacles Huckabee faces are rivals who appeal to the same bloc of voters that propelled Huckabee’s first-place finish in the 2008 Iowa caucuses — and who have a proven fundraising prowess that he lacked in that campaign, when he raised $16 million.
“In 2007 and 2008, people gave him a pass for not being able to raise a lot of money because no one knew who he was. Now everyone knows who he is,” said Bob Vander Plaats, who served as Huckabee’s Iowa co-chairman in 2008 and is currently uncommitted. “Can he back that up with the finances to run a top-tier campaign?”
Huckabee acknowledged the importance of fundraising.
“I’m going to let you in on a little secret: I never have been and I’m not going to be the favored candidate of those in the Washington-to-Wall Street corridor of power. I will be funded and fueled not by the billionaires, but by working people across America,” Huckabee said.
He urged supporters to make small, monthly donations before quipping, “Rest assured, if you want to give $1 million, please do it.”
Huckabee was not regarded as a serious White House candidate in 2008 until his surprise come-from-behind win over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in Iowa. His success against the much better funded Romney was in part due to his competition — conservative alternatives who either decided not to run (Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback) or flamed out (actor and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson).
The potential GOP field for 2016 of nearly two dozen candidates includes several who align with religious conservatives, notably Cruz and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin.
Others eyeing the White House who appeal to evangelicals include former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, the victor of the Iowa caucuses in 2012. Paul is also courting religious voters.
“People, just by nature, are kind of drawn to the new car smell, so people are going to want to take a test drive, kick the tires, and sit inside all the new cars, look at all the new candidates and see if that’s the direction they want to go,” said Vander Plaats, president of the Family Leader, an Urbandale, Iowa-based Christian conservative group. “For Huckabee, his hope is going to be, ‘Let’s just persevere, stay the course, and once the new car smell wears off a little bit,’ ” hope that his followers return to the fold.
A poll by NBC and the Wall Street Journal released Monday, however, shows that just over half of registered GOP voters said they could see themselves casting a ballot for the former governor, well below support for Rubio, Walker and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Huckabee’s campaign sees a path to the nomination that is staked on Iowa and South Carolina, which are both dominated by evangelical voters and hold two of the first nominating contests in the nation. (Immediately after announcing his presidential bid, Huckabee planned to travel to these states for a “Factories, Farms & Freedom” tour.)
Successful showings there would provide Huckabee momentum going into the proposed “SEC primary” of several Southern states in March, according to a Huckabee advisor.
Huckabee’s announcement speech was laced with appeals to religious voters, including several references to his faith, and warnings that Christianity was being criminalized by the courts, and that the nation had lost its moral way because of the tens of millions of babies who have been aborted.
Huckabee’s greatest strength is his skill on the stump. His roots as a Baptist preacher are on display in the retail campaigning that is de rigueur in the early states. A quintessential happy warrior, Huckabee frequently quipped in 2008 that while he was conservative, he wasn’t angry about it.