Mike Huckabee knows how to activate the evangelical base, and that’s something Mitt Romney desperately needs.
The former Arkansas governor led the charge in the recent Chick-fil-A controversy, which fired up the anti-gay marriage crowd especially in the South. Huckabee, a Southern Baptist preacher turned politician, understands better than anyone on the current political scene what makes the evangelical mind tick.
That’s why Huckabee, a folksy Southerner who can spin a yarn, would be a smart veep pick for Romney, a moderate Massachusetts Mormon who is still on shaky ground with religious Southerners.
Sure, Huckabee and Romney slung a lot of mud at each other during the 2008 primary. Republicans in the know told me back then that Romney had a team of opposition researchers on the ground in Arkansas, digging up every possible scrap of dirt on Huckabee.
Huckabee said then that Romney, the Yankee, had no hunting credentials, didn’t know how to eat fried chicken like a Southerner (we like the skin left on) and accused him of running a dishonest, dirty campaign.
But in the political world, most tiffs never last long. Huckabee has now taken a protective role with Romney.
On Wednesday, Huckabee posted on his Facebook page, a lengthy defense of Romney’s recent foreign trip that was laced with several gaffes as he visited Britain, Israel and Poland.
Huckabee continued on Thursday, questioning Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and defending Romney’s ongoing income tax drama. “Time for an update on Harry Reid and his imaginary friend who’s telling him Mitt Romney paid no income taxes for a decade,” Huckabee wrote.
People close to Huckabee say he’s not interested in a vice presidential spot — at all. He is enjoying his work in media from his FOX television show to writing books, says one person. They adamantly deny he is going through the vetting process.
That doesn’t stop many from thinking that Huckabee, who has secured a speaking spot at the Republican National Convention in Tampa at the end of the month, would be an asset on the ticket.
“Despite their fairly obvious dislike for one another shown during the 2008 Iowa caucuses, Huckabee would provide the ticket someone with a tremendous ability to communicate in a way the resonates with the base (as most recently shown in the Chic-fil-A event) and a middle-class upbringing and a continued link to non-country club Republicans,” says Jay Barth, chair of the Department of Politics and International Relations at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark.
Huckabee, like Bill Clinton, was born in Hope, Ark. His father was a mechanic and a fireman and his mother worked as a clerk at a gas company. Huckabee, unlike Romney, built his political career from scratch without a parental legacy for support. He served as Arkansas governor from 1996 to 2007. He left Arkansas in 2010 and moved to Florida, a battleground state.
Janine Parry, a professor of political science at the University of Arkansas, says that Huckabee is also attractive to independents and tea party voters who favor his fair tax stance.
“He also is just plain likable: warm, funny (if sometimes a bit too sharp), and relatable ... another weakness for Romney,” Parry tells me.
While his religious credentials are alluring, they can also turnoff a key voting block.
“His reputation as a Southern Baptist preacher and darling of social conservatives tilts the ticket too far to the right to appeal to the Independents who determine the outcome of contemporary elections,” Parry says.
But Huckabee possesses other negatives, too, says Barth.
“His long record in Arkansas, including problematic release of criminals from prison who went on to later offenses, and the fact that his mouth gets him in trouble does seem to defy the ‘at least do the ticket no harm’ rule in vice presidential selections,” Barth says.
Regardless of his missteps as governor, a man like Huckabee, a GOP cheerleader who can woo thousands of people to buy chicken sandwiches, can very likely turn out voters in November if he is on the ticket.
Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist and author of “Sex in the South: Unbuckling the Bible Belt.” Follow her on Twitter at @SuziParker