'Folksy' Mike Huckabee keeps eyes on Fox's fan base, and the White House

HE'S HAVING FUN: The former Arkansas governor on the set of his show at Fox News headquarters in Manhattan.
HE'S HAVING FUN: The former Arkansas governor on the set of his show at Fox News headquarters in Manhattan. (Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 21, 2009


To the untrained eye, Mike Huckabee appears to be running for president again.

Looking into the camera, he unloads on President Obama: "He's never done this kind of work before. He's never run a state or a private company, or as best we can tell even a Sno-Cone stand. So running the whole country, that's a big leap from community organizer."

But the former Arkansas governor is just doing his Fox News show -- and, what's more, insists he may pass up the 2012 race. Although if he were plotting another White House campaign, what better route than by pounding home a conservative message on television?

"It would be disingenuous to say it never crossed my mind, and I'd be just as happy doing an animal program," says Huckabee, his small office accommodating both a tie rack -- he leans toward purples and pinks -- and seven guitars, including a Gibson Les Paul, Epiophone acoustic bass and two Fender Stratocasters. "There's an assumption that I'm just itching to run again."

But, he says, "I'd need to be out courting donors almost nonstop. I really enjoy what I'm doing immensely. I like having a life. There's a certain level of enjoyment in the independence I have. Someone puts a microphone in my face and demands I answer a question, I can say, 'Put it where the sun don't shine.' "

Perhaps this is the modern method of presidential plotting: Leave public office, get on the tube, do a book tour a la Sarah Palin. Huckabee is out promoting his New York Times bestseller, "A Simple Christmas," on such venues as "The View" and the "Daily Show." And if the next race doesn't materialize, well, the money isn't bad in television -- or radio, where Huckabee's daily commentaries are carried on 500 stations.

"He's been the most successful failed presidential candidate in the history of our country," says Chip Saltsman, who managed Huckabee's 2008 campaign. "Beyond that, he's having fun." As for his Fox platform, Saltsman says: "That's what a big percentage of our primary voters watch every day. It's an amazing outlet for a conservative guy to reach conservative voters."

The hour-long Saturday night program, averaging 1.6 million viewers, is Fox's highest-rated of the weekend, beating all its cable news rivals combined. Huckabee's great strength is that "he is folksy," says Fox Senior Vice President Bill Shine. "He's not one of those flashy, loud, obnoxious hosts that are sometimes equated with cable and broadcast. He's from Arkansas, a part of the country we don't usually get television hosts from. He's very respectful, very cordial, certainly interrupts less than any other host on cable."

'A pool with no water'

Huckabee sits in "The Hot Seat," answering questions from a pair of strategists, one from each party. He interviews such guests as a former Planned Parenthood official who has turned against abortion and ends each show by playing bass with his band, the Little Rockers. Shine says Fox executives were skeptical of the musical segment, but that it is often the highest-rated quarter of the show.

One week Huckabee's band backed a tea party protester named Kay Rivoli, who sang a song about health-care reform: "To let some bureaucrat decide if we should live or die/should scare us half to death and make us want to cry."

Huckabee hasn't exactly abandoned Republican politics, either. On Sunday, he headlined a Nebraska rally staged to oppose the Democrats' health care bill. His HuckPAC has been involved in local races, raising $305,000 in this campaign cycle. His Web site urges followers to "Vote No Against Senate Health Care Bill" and invites fans to join him and his wife, Janet (for just $3,999!), on a tour of Israel next month. Fox executives told Huckabee to stop plugging the Web site on the air after learning that it linked to his political action committee, which the network deemed a conflict of interest.

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