Mike Huckabee is going to run for president in 2016. While he won't make that official until next Tuesday, he released a two-minute video on Friday that both previews the themes on which he will run and shows why he may be the most underrated candidate in the field.
The video, which was produced by likely Huckabee campaign consultant Bob Wickers, tells the story of the former Arkansas governor's political life -- from his election in "Bill Clinton's Arkansas" to his decade leading the state. Watch the whole video. But here's the CliffsNotes version on why it works:
1. Huckabee as Clinton kryptonite. Within the first 12 seconds of the video, there are two images of the Clintons shown on screen. In one, Bill and Hillary are holding hands across a plane aisle. In the other, Bill is watching, unhappily, as Huckabee speaks. "You had all of the apparatus of the Democratic Party aligned against Mike Huckabee.... All of a sudden this Republican comes out of nowhere and wins," recounts Rex Nelson of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The message is clear: I beat the Clintons once, and I can do it again. It's worth noting here that Huckabee didn't actually ever beat the Clintons; he was lieutenant governor in 1996 when Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, a Clinton confidant, resigned. Huckabee assumed the governor's office. Still, for a party that sees the formidable figure of Hillary Clinton waiting in the general election, Huckabee's message that he knows how to beat these people has the potential to be potent.
2. He's an actual Southern populist. Ask yourself who in the current 2016 Republican (or Democratic) field could say the following words without sounding like a total phony: "Any drunken redneck can walk into a bar and start a fight. A leader only starts a fight he's prepared to finish." The answer is, aside from Huckabee, no one. As we saw in 2008, Huckabee's Southern-fried populism works in places like Iowa and South Carolina. (Remember that Huckabee likely would have won South Carolina if Fred Thompson had dropped out before the Palmetto State primary.) And, if anything, the desire for a populist to represent "average" people has grown in the intervening seven years. The gap between the rich and the poor continues to grow, and many Republicans remain stung by Mitt Romney's image as an entitled plutocrat in the 2012 campaign. "I'm not a Republican because I grew up rich," Huckabee says in the video. "I'm a Republican because I didn't want to spend the rest of my life poor waiting for the government to rescue me." That's a powerful message.
3. He's never worked a day in Washington. The anti-Washington sentiment runs strong in the Republican Party at the moment, a challenge for the three sitting senators -- Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio -- who are running for the Republican presidential nomination. Huckabee can make a strong case that he's spent his life not only outside Washington but fighting those in Washington. "One thing that has to happen in America is moving the power away from Washington where people are so disconnected from the way Americans live," Huckabee says. "It's a disaster." Later, he adds: "Washington has done enough lying and stealing." I guarantee you that's a BIG applause line in any early primary or caucus state that Huckabee travels to over the next few months.
4. The moral majority. The key to Huckabee's surprising strength in 2008 was the sense among evangelical voters that he wasn't just another politician asking for their vote but rather one of them. Huckabee hits that theme hard in the video; as the words "moral clarity" are shown on screen, Huckabee is heard saying: "There's a difference between right and wrong. There's a difference between good and evil." Huckabee is the highest-profile candidate who will talk openly about faith and values in the campaign, and there's reason to think that such rhetoric will pay political dividends. In the 2012 Iowa caucuses, 57 percent of GOPers identified as "evangelical/born-again"; in the 2012 South Carolina primary, that number was 65 percent.
So, having read all that (you did read all that, right?), the only conclusion to draw is that Huckabee will be the Republican nominee. Well, not exactly. Huckabee's main problem in the 2016 race is the same one he had in 2008: No commitment to fundraising and the lack of a deep organization (or the desire to build one) in the early states. Huckabee won Iowa going away in 2008 and got just 11 percent in New Hampshire five days later. Without real money that pays for real organization, Huckabee could well be a very talented candidate -- and not much more -- again.
Then there's the problem that Huckabee will have in 2016 that he didn't in 2008: He won't sneak up on anyone. Part of Huckabee's success in Iowa in 2008 was that the bigger candidates largely ignored him until it was too late. That won't happen this time around. Fiscal hawks -- led by the Club for Growth -- have been itching to expose what they believe is Huckabee's less-than-stellar record on taxes and spending as governor of Arkansas. He won't be spared those attacks this time.
Add it all up and I don't see Huckabee as a top-tier candidate or the nominee. But, to those who would dismiss his chances out of hand, I say two things: (1) Remember 2008, and (2) watch that video.