My colleagues Philip Rucker and Robert Costa liken Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush to two heavyweights with a similar profile "warming up for what could become a brutal bout, sizing each other up and mulling whether or when to step into the ring."
Somewhere near that ring is former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, contemplating a possible rematch with Romney, whom he battled for second place in 2008. And Romney's reported attempt to run to the right of Bush could rekindle that rivalry, which eight years ago featured the two trying to become the conservative alternative to John McCain.
Back then, Ed Rollins, Huckabee's national campaign chairman, said this about some of the negative campaign dynamics in the lead-up to Iowa: "What I have to do is make sure that my anger with a guy like Romney, whose teeth I want to knock out, doesn't get in the way of my thought process."
"That was my commentary with a couple of drinks in me," Rollins said when reached by phone. "It got very nasty, and they didn't like each other."
Romney poured millions into the race, releasing a flurry of ads that framed Huckabee as soft on crime. In one rather silly Web ad, the Romney team had actor Chuck Norris deliver a roundhouse kick to Huckabee, the guy whom he had endorsed and cut an ad for.
Huckabee didn't have the war chest to go on the air and clumsily opted not to run attack ads, instead running a shoestring campaign fueled by one-liners. His negative campaign, which had a certain folksy charm to it, was waged in earned media, in news conferences and on TV.
A few of his greatest hits from that race:
- On Romney's conservative credentials: "Romney, here's a guy who didn't hit puberty in the conservative ranks until 60 years old."
- On Romney's claim that he was a life-long hunter, even though he had never taken out a license: "It would be like me saying I've been a lifelong golfer because I played putt-putt when I was 9 years old and I rode in a golf cart a couple of times."
- On Romney's faith: "Don't Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?"
- On Romney's business record and regular guy credentials: "People are looking for a presidential candidate who reminds them of the guy they work with rather than the guy who laid them off.”
And what about that time that Romney went to a KFC and took the chicken off the skin before eating it? You're wondering what the point is of going to KFC if you aren't going to eat the skin? Huckabee had similar thoughts:
"I can tell you this," he said at a news conference, according to a CNN report: "Any Southerner knows if you don’t eat the skin, don’t bother calling it fried chicken.
"So that's good," Huckabee continued. "I'm glad that he did that, because that means I'm going to win Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma ... all these great Southern states that understand the best part of fried chicken is the skin, if you're going to eat it that way."
Huckabee ended up winning eight states — including many of the Southern ones mentioned above — to Romney's 11, in what became essentially a tie for second place. If he runs this time, he brings similar expectations and the usual evangelical base and rhetorical gifts.
"Huckabee can't sneak up on anyone this go-round. He begins in a far better position," Rollins said. "He had a million people watching every weekend (on his Fox News show). And he will be one of the best speakers on the trail. If Huckabee had run two years ago, it would have been one on one, but this time it’s going to be a crowded field."
And what about that tension from 2008?
"Mike isn't a hater, and I don’t think Romney is either," Rollins said. "It was the heat of the battle. The nastiness was in Iowa last time because Romney had put so much into it. Iowa won't be as important, and they both would have their own front-runner status looking at the long game."
Huckabee, of course, wasn't the only candidate who jousted with Romney in 2008 (Romney wasn't very popular with his fellow candidates back then). And eventually, he helped him fend off Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum while stopping short of an outright endorsement. At the Tampa convention, he praised Romney, recalling their competition.
"Four years ago, Mitt Romney and I were opponents. We still are, but we're not opposing each other," Huckabee said. "No, we are mutual opponents of the miserably failed experiments that have put this country in a downward spiral."
Soon, they could be opposing each other again. We'll see whether their relationship looks more like 2008 or 2012.