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

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 21, 2009; C01

NEW YORK

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.

With little money or name recognition, Huckabee was a long-shot presidential contender. But with strong backing from Christian voters, the former Baptist pastor won the Iowa caucuses and went on to take seven more states, making him the last man standing against John McCain.

Huckabee still thinks he could have captured the nomination had he not finished second in South Carolina, where, he says, "it snowed in Greenville that morning," depressing turnout in his stronghold. Surely a man who thinks he was one storm away from being the GOP nominee, and who now leads in many preseason polls, still dreams about the White House.

But Huckabee is enjoying his little media empire. "If I were to be a candidate, I'd have to walk away from every bit of that. I'm not going to jump in a pool with no water. If you don't have the support -- not just financial, but the structural support from the activists and party regulars -- it's very risky."

A potential race became far riskier late last month when Maurice Clemmons -- whose prison term had been commuted by Huckabee -- was accused in the shooting deaths of four Washington state police officers. Huckabee granted the commutation on a 1989 robbery and theft conviction, and the Arkansas parole board freed Clemmons.

Huckabee says he acted, with the sentencing judge's acquiescence, because Clemmons had served 11 years of a 108-year sentence for a crime committed with no weapon. "That was a politically stupid thing to do," says Huckabee, who granted a striking number of commutations -- 163 -- during his decade as governor. "There is no political upside to granting a clemency action, ever. . . . It makes it look like I'm soft on crime." Huckabee says he accepts responsibility for the decision on Clemmons, who was later killed in a confrontation with police.

The tragedy sent Huckabee's political stock plunging. Mark McKinnon, who advised the McCain and George W. Bush campaigns, wrote on the Daily Beast that "Huckabee is done as a political candidate. For good. Doesn't matter what the circumstances were, doesn't matter whether there was a convincing rationale at the time. . . . Stick a fork in him."

Asked if he is indeed toast, Huckabee says simply: "I don't know, could be. If it is, it is."

On-camera experience

In any event, Huckabee says, "People are a bit naive when they say President Obama is going to be a one-termer. Do not count this guy out. He's very smart, and the atmosphere in politics can change very quickly."

If the wisecracking host seems comfortable in front of the cameras, that's because he has plenty of experience. He became a deejay at 14 at a radio station in Hope, Ark. He paid for his education at Ouachita Baptist University by working full time at a station in Arkadelphia. After dropping out of a seminary to work for televangelist James Robison, Huckabee started low-power, 24-hour television stations at the two churches where he served as pastor.

"I believed that part of my calling was to use the media as a communication vessel for the Gospel," he writes.

While Huckabee got along well with reporters during last year's campaign, he was rankled by the media's performance: "For the first eight months the only questions I was asked were process questions: 'How much money have you raised? How many field offices do you have in Iowa and New Hampshire?' I thought, 'Does anyone care what I'd do with health care policy or infrastructure or education?' The public were the ones who were cheated. They were essentially given a front-row seat to a horse race."

Huckabee says the three cable news channels approached him after he dropped out but that he felt most at home with Fox. And these days he can't escape one process question, even when he's being interviewed on his own network: Does he still have the presidential bug?

"I'm not sure you ever get rid of it," Saltsman says. "There's no cure."

Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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