Fire in the Belly

huckabee before after
Before and after pictures of Huckabee, a "recovering foodaholic" who has lost 120 pounds in two years by improving his diet and taking up exercise. (Alex Wong -- Getty Images)

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By Mark Leibovich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 17, 2006

LITTLE ROCK

He was born in Hope, has been governor of Arkansas for 10 years and is thinking about running for president.

So, yes, Mike Huckabee has much in common with Bill Clinton. He's also struggled to control his appetites over the years. And if he runs for president, these appetites, like Clinton's, will be a defining theme of his campaign, just as they will if he ever sits in the Oval Office.

Huckabee's problem appetites are for food. Clinton loved to eat, too, but not like Huckabee. Food is the prevailing demon of his life.

"I'm a foodaholic," Huckabee declares in the living room of the governor's mansion. He is doe-eyed, speaks quietly, sounds vulnerable -- Richard Simmons would hug him if he were here, God forbid.

Clarification: Huckabee, 50, is a "recovering foodaholic." The mirthful governor, a Southern Baptist preacher and conservative Republican, has lost 120 pounds in the past two years. He resisted corn dogs, drumsticks and other staples of the Southern-fried political buffet. At his peak he hauled about 300 pounds on his 5-foot-11 frame -- "about," he says, because his scale went up to only 280. In one embarrassing episode, Huckabee sat down for a Cabinet meeting at the state capitol and demolished a 100-year-old chair.

He's been a fat guy for the bulk of his career in public office, starting when he was elected lieutenant governor in 1993 and continuing into the governor's office, which Huckabee inherited three years later after then-Gov. Jim Guy Tucker resigned following his conviction in the Whitewater case. After failing at numerous diets, Huckabee broke through in 2003 when his doctor diagnosed him with Type 2 diabetes and said he'd be dead in 10 years if he didn't change his eating habits (prodigious) and exercise regimen (nonexistent).

While the country hardly lacks weight loss idols and fitness cheerleaders, none has attacked the issue so aggressively from a public policy standpoint. Nor has any other politician devoted such a hefty portion of his bully pulpit to the cause -- a pulpit that has grown exponentially since Huckabee became chairman of the National Governors Association in July (a post that Clinton also held) and one that would balloon even more if he runs for president.

"There is no greater issue driving the U.S. economy than this," Huckabee says, "this" being the scourge of obesity, junk food consumption and sedentary lifestyles. He preaches nutrition and fitness in the context of self-reliance and civic duty. Bad health maintenance takes a great societal toll, he says -- in rising medical and insurance costs and worker absences, among other things. He allows that this "epidemic" is not a sexy political issue.

But it is clearly a resonant personal issue for tens of millions of Americans -- and if anyone can bring it into the red-meat political arena, it's Huckabee.

It's also worth noting the states with the highest obesity rates tend to vote Republican. Whether this would predict support for Huckabee in GOP primaries is not known, but at the very least, "it's a very intriguing possibility," says Chuck Todd, editor of Hotline, speaking of a Huckabee presidential campaign.

"Think about what they put on the cover of Time and Newsweek when there's no big news story," Todd says. "Diets and Jesus. There is a huge audience for this. These could be Huckabee's constituencies."


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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