By Karen Tumulty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 21, 2011; 12:32 AM
IN NEW YORK -- Anyone who thinks presidential ambition is an incurable condition hasn't spent much time lately with Mike Huckabee.
The man who came in second in the 2008 GOP primary isn't exactly ruling out another run in 2012. But he doesn't sound all that eager to jump right back into the fray, either.
"I'm not one who thinks the future of the world is depending on whether I run for president," the former Arkansas governor said in an interview.
The truth is, there were many things about the presidential campaign grind that Huckabee didn't much like the last time around.
Don't look for him in the early presidential debates, which begin just over two months from now, for instance. He doesn't have fond memories of standing on those crowded stages during the last campaign, fighting for airtime and answering question after question about Iraq.
"We just rehashed the same stuff, over and over. I was bored with it," Huckabee said. "It was the same tripe, and I found it just incredibly disgusting, and ultimately meaningless."
Nor was he particularly sorry to have skipped this year's Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, a traditional stop for GOP presidential contenders, which was underway even as he was giving this interview. "It's a showcase of just people coming out to get more exposure," he said.
So instead of throwing red meat to the conservative faithful, Huckabee was tucking into a breakfast of eggs and butter-slathered pancakes at a trendy New York hotel overlooking Times Square. His much discussed diet - he famously lost more than 100 pounds after being diagnosed with diabetes in 2003 and wrote a book about eating right - is apparently on hiatus.
It would indeed be tough for Huckabee to return to that budget-motel existence in Dubuque and Ottumwa, now that he is a bona fide media star. Thanks in large part to the celebrity he built in that losing presidential campaign, the former Baptist preacher is making serious money. Huckabee's various gigs include a weekly television show on Fox News, Paul Harvey-style commentaries on some 600 radio stations and a packed schedule of speaking engagements. In June, he'll be headlining a week-long cruise to Alaska.
When Huckabee and his wife, Janet, picked out the lot for the house they are building on a Florida beach, "We just looked at each other and started laughing. We thought, can you believe we can do this?" he said. "Our first apartment was $40 a month. Our closet in this house will probably be as large as that tiny little apartment."
And how much will such a palace cost? "Hadn't finished it yet. I honestly don't know," he said, dodging the question with practiced amiability. He did note, however, that the supposed pictures of it that a blogger posted on the Internet are actually of a house under construction down the street.
"It could be that I've found my niche," he said. "I may be doing what I need to be doing, which is very fulfilling."
Despite his reservations about returning to politics, Huckabee acts like a man who still has at least one eye on the White House.
He recently returned from his 15th trip to Israel, where he was received almost as a visiting head of state. He sat down with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and spoke at the Knesset. This week, he will launch a tour to promote his sixth book, titled "Simple Government: Twelve Things We Really Need from Washington (and a Trillion That We Don't)."
That sounds the title of a campaign manifesto. If Huckabee does runs again - and he doesn't expect to make that decision until this summer at the earliest - he wants it to be on his own terms.
How would things have to be different this time?
"Money - lots of it," he said. "One thing I'm certainly going to gauge over the next few months is, would there be a substantial financial support? We did it before on a dime to the dollar of my opponents. I think it would be difficult to do again, because there would be higher expectations. I don't plan to jump in a pool that has no water."
At the end of last year, Huckabee's political action committee had not quite $140,000 in the bank, about one-tenth of what former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's did. But money might not be such a problem, given some of Huckabee's other advantages.
He would start as the presumed front-runner in Iowa, by virtue of having won the caucuses last time. A Gallup survey in January of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents also indicated that Huckabee is the best-liked of the potential GOP contenders, with seven out of 10 saying they have a favorable impression of him.
Huckabee also still has a significant political following, especially in the state where the nation's first presidential contest will take place and where he has six stops scheduled during his book tour.
"The support that he has remains strong," said Eric Woolson, who managed Huckabee's winning Iowa campaign in 2008. But Woolson cautioned: "Some folks are going to wait until it's too late, and they won't know it's too late until it's too late."
The more Huckabee talks about the prospect, however, the less appealing he makes it sound. He has mixed feelings, for instance, about the impact of the tea party - both on his own prospects and those of the GOP.
He gives the tea party credit for bringing new energy into politics. "It has involved people who felt disenfranchised and pretty much shut out of the process," he said, "and they demonstrated that there is a capacity for ordinary American people to not just influence, but to challenge and change their government, which is a wonderfully healthy thing."
But Huckabee also worries: "What I don't know is, does this translate into a party of such ultraorthodoxy that no one with a record of actually governing can get through the mire?"
Even before the advent of the tea party, Huckabee's own record had been problematic in Republican primary politics. He faced no small amount of criticism during his last presidential campaign for the tax and spending increases he oversaw as governor. Since then, another controversy has arisen over his 2000 decision as governor to commute the burglary sentence of a man who nine years later - free on bail from another crime - killed four police officers in Seattle.
And then there is the question of whether the Republican nomination will really be such a prize in 2012.
President Obama "is going to be much tougher to beat than people in our party think," Huckabee said. "He's going to have a clear ride through to the Democratic nomination, because no one is going to oppose him or challenge him. He's going to start out with a billion dollars, no opponent, so he can save his money to the last four months. He's got a huge social network and he has the power of the incumbency. People underestimate how sweet it is flying on Air Force One with all the trappings of the presidency."
The Republicans, meanwhile, "could in fact end up with a demolition derby," he added. "Whoever emerges will come out bloody, bruised and broke."
Obama could be crippled by such imponderables as high unemployment or a crisis overseas, Huckabee said. "Is he beatable? Yes. Is it as easy as some of the Republicans like to chirp? Absolutely not. And that's something I have to consider."
Meanwhile, Huckabee said he has to consider whether he is in fighting shape - "mentally, emotionally, spiritually and every other way prepared to do this again." Then there's this: The man who turned the other cheek at deep fried Twinkies at the Iowa state fair in 2008 is noticeably heavier than he was a couple of years ago.
"I've really struggled this past year," he said. His eating habits have slipped back into old patterns, a bad knee keeps him from exercising as much as he should, his travel schedule is punishing.
"But that's an excuse," Huckabee said. "I'm not going to make it. We do what we want to do."
Doing just what he wants to do is a luxury that not everyone gets. And no one knows better than Mike Huckabee how hard it would be to give that up.