LITTLE ROCK — Mike Huckabee had wrapped up his speech Thursday night to an audience of politically active pastors and turned to questions. The first one came from a woman near the front: “Are you running?”
As the room erupted in whoops and applause, the former Arkansas governor smiled and said, “The Lord knows, but he’s not telling just yet.”
God is not the only one with whom Huckabee is having quiet conversations these days about the idea of making another run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
Over the past three months or so, Huckabee has been sounding out activists and potential financial supporters, as well as mulling whether his cheerful brand of socially conservative populism could bring together his fractured party and restore the country’s faith in Republicans .
It would be a long shot politically and a surprising turn personally for an insurgent candidate who came from nowhere to win the Iowa caucuses in 2008, only to see his campaign sputter in later contests for lack of money and organization. He ended up second to eventual nominee John McCain, the establishment pick, in the number of convention delegates.
The 2008 experience left Huckabee disillusioned — and, he said, bored — with what it took to run for the Oval Office. So, he took a pass on 2012 and focused on his radio and television shows and the lecture circuit, all of which offered a chance for him to make significant money for the first time in his life and spend time with a growing brood of grandchildren.
In most of the polling and speculation about 2016, Huckabee acknowledged, “I’m never mentioned in those conversations.”
But it has long been joked that the only real cure for presidential ambition is embalming fluid. And what Huckabee senses now, he said in an interview, is that the process and the political landscape have changed, potentially to his advantage.
“I’m a long way from saying, ‘Yeah, I’m in,’ ” Huckabee said. But, he added, he is getting encouragement “from places where I never got it before,” including the business and the GOP establishments.
He also produced a private poll, conducted in early December by his longtime political consultant Bob Wickers, that he said surprised him by suggesting that he would fare better today in the early-contest states of Iowa and South Carolina than such talked-about names as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.), Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Marco Rubio (Fla.).
“I really believe the key to a Republican victory is an ability to communicate a message that speaks across a broader spectrum,” he said. “I think that one of our failures is the ability to speak to African Americans, to speak to people who are Hispanic, to speak to working-class people — more than just speaking to the boardroom, speaking to the people who go in and clean up after the meeting.”
And with the passage of time since 2008, he seems to recall the process a little more fondly.
“Begging people for money was not pleasant, and fighting off total distortions about one’s record is not pleasant,” he said. “But as far as the campaign itself, that was exhilarating. I love that part of connecting with people and the ability to do that.”
He added: “The big question is, is there financial support? Would there be the kind of, significant kind of, financial support that would make a viable candidacy?”
Huckabee recently announced that he is giving up his daily radio show, though he will continue his weekend program on Fox News Channel. He plans to travel the country extensively next year to support GOP candidates, particularly in Senate races.
However confident he may be in his message, Huckabee would be up against an array of fresh faces in a party desperate to turn the page. And some of his old adversaries are still out there — among them, the Club for Growth, which deemed his gubernatorial record too liberal.
“My hope and prayer is that more mainstream Republicans would push back hard against the groups like Club for Growth and FreedomWorks and even Heritage Action,” Huckabee said in a late October speech in Little Rock.
“Mike Huckabee should attend an anger-management seminar,” Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller said when asked about the prospect of another Huckabee campaign. “He’s still upset that the Club for Growth PAC exposed his support of tax increases and bigger government when he ran for president. If he runs, the first thing he should do is grow a thicker skin and get ready for his atrocious anti-growth record to be exposed to Republican primary voters once again.”
But Huckabee, a former Baptist minister, retains strong support among evangelical Christians and other social conservatives, as was evidenced by those lining up for photos and handshakes before Thursday night’s dinner here.
He was the keynote speaker at the event, which was sponsored by the American Renewal Project, an organization led by activist David Lane that encourages evangelical pastors to become more involved in political action.
Huckabee focused on income inequality — an issue that President Obama has highlighted recently — as a problem that Christians are compelled by their faith to address.
“We devalue people sometimes who are poor. We do not deem them worthy of the same level of treatment we give those who are connected to the real axis of evil in this country — the axis of power that exists between Washington and Wall Street,” Huckabee said. “The fact is, people in the middle class in this country have lost ground over the past few years, despite all of the rhetoric about trying to lift them up.”
About 600 pastors and their spouses were in the audience. Afterward, Huckabee held a private meeting with a group from Iowa and South Carolina.
“He is by far the best communicator I have seen,” said Greg Baker, political director of the Family Leader, an influential conservative organization in Iowa.
While Huckabee has railed against the influence of such groups as Club for Growth, he also sees possibility in the new sources of money that super PACs represent.
“With the advent of the super PACs, it frankly is a lot easier to get the financial support. You can find a few people that really, really are capable of helping and want to,” he said. “One of the challenges I had was, I was out there raising it $2,500 at a time, and there weren’t many people supporting me who could afford the $2,500.”
Among the biggest of those funders is casino magnate Sheldon Adelson , who with his wife, Miriam, has spent nearly $100 million to help Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Adelson and his family poured more than $20 million into advertising supporting former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), without which he would not have lasted as long as he did in the GOP primary.
Although Adelson has not declared a favorite for 2016, he clearly feels warmly toward Huckabee. In November, the Adelsons presented the former Arkansas governor with the Adelson Defender of Israel Award at a Zionist Organization of America dinner in New York, at which Huckabee also was the keynote speaker.
Alice Crites contributed to this report.