More than a half-dozen possible aspirants for the 2008 presidential nominations gathered here last week for the summer meeting of the National Governors Association (NGA). Notable among them were Republicans Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, George Pataki of New York, Haley Barbour of Mississippi and Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, along with Democrats Tom Vilsack of Iowa, Mark Warner of Virginia and Bill Richardson of New Mexico.
But the most intriguing was a man whose name is probably even more unfamiliar, Mike Huckabee, the Republican governor of Arkansas.
Huckabee and Vilsack stand out as two who are consciously following Bill Clinton's path. Vilsack has just succeeded Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, another potential presidential contender, as chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, the group of party moderates that served as the vehicle for Clinton's 1992 race. And Huckabee was named here to follow Warner in the chairmanship of the NGA, another of the important Clinton steppingstones to the presidency.
Huckabee, who is approaching the final year of his governorship, is expanding his national profile. In addition to the NGA chairmanship, he is head of the Education Commission of the States, the clearinghouse for school reform efforts.
Now 49, he is part of a bewildering variety of networks. A preacher for 12 years, he headed the Arkansas Baptist State Convention before being elected lieutenant governor and succeeding the scandal-tainted Jim Guy Tucker as governor in 1996. But at 1 a.m. last Sunday, he could be found wearing a Hawaiian shirt, playing bass guitar and leading his rock band of fellow Arkansans, called Capitol Offense, at the NGA staff party in Raccoon River Brewing Co., a downtown beer hall.
The band has played from Hollywood to New York as the opening act for such stars as Aretha Franklin, making Huckabee comfortable chatting with everyone from devout Baptist elders to tattooed rock 'n' rollers.
As if that weren't enough, the self-described onetime "fat boy" is someone who, confronted with diabetes, put himself on a medically supervised diet in 2003, shed 110 pounds and emerged fit enough to finish this year's Little Rock Marathon. He describes his experience in the book "Quit Digging Your Grave With a Knife and Fork," and he has carried his zeal for healthy living into a variety of public programs.
He put all of Arkansas's tobacco settlement money into expanding medical insurance for young people and offered $20-a-month bonuses to state employees who volunteered for regular checkups and healthy regimens. As NGA chairman, he plans to expand such programs to other states, an essential step, he says, not only for public health but also to curb the ever rising costs resulting from obesity and chronic illnesses.
Largely devoid of foreign policy experience, Huckabee forecasts that the 2008 election will turn on concerns about schools, health care and jobs. He identifies himself as an outsider who shares the public impatience with "a polarized Washington that is a paralyzed Washington." He touts his personal friendship with Clinton, Vilsack, Warner and other Democrats and his ability to work with a Democratic legislature at home.
Which raises an interesting question: Huckabee calls himself "deeply conservative" and "strongly pro-life." This year he and his wife led hundreds of other couples in a televised marriage recommitment ceremony. And yet he tells interviewers that he thinks the term "culture wars" is an exaggeration because "the country is not nearly as polarized as the discussion is."
Armed with a self-mocking sense of humor, he says his own rock 'n' roll Baptist preacher identity is "a personality dichotomy I can't explain." But the official biography his staff distributed here omits any reference to what he calls a "very important part of my life," his years in the ministry, and he consciously tries to suggest he is no hard-liner on the most divisive social issues.
Asked if he thought it possible to outlaw abortion in America, he answered, "At this time, probably not," and then outlined various restrictions he has sponsored in Arkansas. Then he deftly suggested an analogy to the struggle against segregation. "The great example," he said, "is Martin Luther King. He had a dream, not a deadline. He knew you can't change a culture overnight. He was thinking about the next generation, not the next election. And that's the kind of leadership the country is looking for now."
By most reckonings, Huckabee is a presidential long shot. But the other day, he got an unsolicited phone call from Harry Thomason, the friend of Clinton's who made the president's campaign biography film, celebrating the Arkansas home town Clinton and Huckabee share. "I want you to know," Thomason told Huckabee, "I've already got a working title -- 'Another Man From Hope.' "