NEW YORK — The questioner told Mike Huckabee he was worried about the "enormous and disturbing success" of Donald J. Trump, the brash billionaire now leading the Republican presidential field in the polls. He asked Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas who is also seeking the GOP nomination, if Trump's success reflected blue-collar voters' frustrations with the Republican establishment on issues such as immigration.
As he often does, Huckabee first deflected the question with a joke: "I'm not going to say anything unkind about Donald Trump," he said, smiling, "because he has more money than me, and he'll use it beating me up."
Then his tone shifted. "One of the reasons why Donald Trump is doing so well is because he's saying things people believe," Huckabee said. "People are angry out there, and he's striking a nerve."
The big reason they're angry, he added, are economic. In particular, he said, they're angry about what he called unfair free trade deals, which allow "cheating" on currency by trade partners (an apparent reference to China) and drain millions of manufacturing jobs from the United States.
"These people are mad at Republicans," he said, "because they think we helped lose their jobs."
Huckabee was addressing a dinner meeting of the Committee to Unleash Prosperity, a group devoted to the pursuit of supply-side economic policies, and founded by economists Arthur Laffer and Stephen Moore, conservative commentator Larry Kudlow and former presidential candidate Steve Forbes. Many of the attendees were wealthy; several of them run Wall Street investment firms.
Huckabee, who has long pitched himself as a sort of working-class whisperer, warned the group repeatedly that conservatives must connect better with blue-collar America. Republicans lose elections, he said, when they run on a message "that sounds good in corporate boardrooms but not on the factory floor."
At the start of the campaign, Huckabee appeared to be the most naturally populist candidate in the GOP field. Trump has at least temporarily grabbed that mantle from him, thundering against Mexico and China for taking advantage of America and stealing U.S. jobs.
Huckabee seemed to concede the power of that message when he told the dinner about a young man he met working the breakfast shift at a budget hotel restaurant in South Carolina recently. The man had lost his factory job three years ago, he said, and was now working three jobs — which paid him less combined than the one job used to.
"You think he's gonna vote for me?" Huckabee asked. "I don't think so."
Whoever wins the Republican nomination, Huckabee said, will need to wield blue-collar concerns in a careful attack on Hillary Rodham Clinton, if she wins the Democratic nod.
"You don't attack her personally," he said. "That makes you look like a bully." Instead, he said, you go after Clinton's record of giving high-paid speeches to private groups after she stepped down as secretary of state. You ask her, "Do you understand the plight of the people who wouldn't be able to get $250 for a week's worth of work, let alone $250,000 for a half-hour talk?"