WINDSOR HEIGHTS, Iowa — When former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee walked into Walnut Creek Church here on Sunday night, fresh off his gleaming navy-blue bus, he was greeted by the crowd of suburban evangelicals as a visiting celebrity rather than a 2016 presidential candidate.
Waiting in line to get their copies of the Republican’s latest book signed, a handful of the attendees shared recollections of Huckabee’s spunky 2008 bid for the White House, when he won the Iowa caucuses and seven more states before bowing out.
But most of the conversations focused on Fox News, where Huckabee had been perched for six years, and how they missed his now-defunct weekend variety show. On the program, Huckabee — a bass-guitar player and former Baptist pastor — was part Ed Sullivan, part Pat Robertson.
“I do miss it,” he said as he scribbled away. He then winked and added, “But I didn’t leave just to have Saturdays off.”
For Huckabee, 59, the fame and wealth he has acquired since he last ran for president has enabled him to build a beachfront mansion in Florida and to become an unofficial cultural spokesman for the moralistic wing of the GOP. The recent tour for his book “God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy” landed him on ABC’s “The View,” where he weighed in on Beyoncé and President Obama’s parenting.
But the ratings and goodwill with his party’s base go only so far. Moving closer to a second presidential run, Huckabee faces stiff competition for the hearts of the grass-roots conservatives in Iowa who lifted him out of obscurity and within reach of the Republican nomination seven years ago.
The list of hard-right rivals is long: former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, who won the 2012 Iowa caucuses, was also in the state Sunday and met with antiabortion activists. Former Texas governor Rick Perry met Monday with Jewish leaders at a kosher deli in Des Moines. And on Saturday, a parade of others spoke at the Iowa Freedom Summit.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) drew an especially raucous reception among the home-school advocates and church leaders at the gathering. They cheered his fiery speech, in which he urged Republicans to rally behind a vigorous conservative who has been battle-tested in the Obama era.
Maryland doctor Ben Carson, a tea party darling, spoke earlier and delved into many of the themes that have animated Huckabee — of faith and the failings of the “political class” — and did so with a soft-spoken cadence similar to Huckabee’s own.
Terry Amann, the influential pastor at Walnut Creek, feels torn. He is friends with Huckabee — they traveled together to Poland and Britain last year along with a group of Iowa ministers, and on Sunday he gave Huckabee a red-and-yellow Iowa State football inscribed with Bible verses. But he is far from ready to endorse.
“I’m vetting every candidate,” Amann said Sunday, years after he provided critical support for Huckabee’s fledgling and underfunded 2008 campaign. “This time, I’m going to start with a clean slate.”
So is Joel Swanson, 45, an academic counselor from Des Moines. “I was part of the ‘Hucka-boom,’ ” he said as he watched Huckabee pose for selfies in the church’s lobby. “He’s got a pretty good tongue. But nobody is exciting me.”
Huckabee’s challenge in the coming months will be to articulate a rationale for his possible candidacy. Firmly established as a likable Republican media figure, he has yet to carve out a singular political space in a party that has become more fractious and conservative.
Huckabee’s past support for Common Core educational standards, which he said in 2013 were “near and dear to my heart,” has become a particular threat to his potential campaign as conservatives nationwide grow furious at the standards’ proliferation.
Yolaine Wade, a retired teacher from Des Moines, was one of about 50 people who showed up Sunday to see Huckabee. She came because she believes Huckabee is a “Christian man who wants to bring this country back to the basics,” she said.
When told of Huckabee’s association with Common Core, Wade called it unfortunate. “I’m glad I’m retired,” she said. “I don’t agree with them.”
Speaking Saturday at the conservative summit, Huckabee assured the more than 1,000 Iowa conservatives there he no longer has affection for the approach. “It has morphed into a ‘Franken-standard’ that nobody, including me, can support,” he said.
However, beyond backing away from his troublesome past positions, Huckabee’s pitch remains under development. For the moment, it is a folksy mix of religious and historical tales with a scattering of populist overtures. The people who heard it Sunday clapped in appreciation, but they did not roar their approval.
Huckabee’s main message: He understands the working-class voters who feel disconnected from coastal elites. He framed the divide as “Bubba-ville” vs. “Bubble-ville.” He also made sure to describe his well-paid tenure at Fox News, which is based in New York, as time spent with a conservative “family.”
“No, I don’t live in New York,” Huckabee said. “I [would] go up there two or three days a week and I’d work there, but I don’t live there and I don’t want to live there. . . . I’d go to New York every week and back to the heartland of America.”
He went on to rail against “New York, Washington and Hollywood” for coarsening “the culture that is normal to us.” But he pointedly did not bring up a policy agenda, nor much about national politics. In short, it was more a book sale than an ideological argument.
Huckabee’s charms as a retail politician were on display. In spite of the entourage that followed him, he repeatedly bent down to shake the hands of children and whisper syrupy asides to the excited women and men who stepped forward.
“Hello, darling, how are you?”
“You’re from Louisiana? I absolutely love crawfish and sausage, don’t you?”
“Let me tell you about that river. It’s one of the best secrets, a wonderful spot to fish.”
Throughout the event, two clipboard-toting Huckabee supporters quietly asked people for their e-mail addresses and phone numbers, promising updates about, as one put it, “what we hope is going to happen.”
Huckabee’s political advisers are working to expand his national financial network, fully aware that a lack of funds prevented his 2008 campaign from competing deep into primary season. They anticipate the need to raise about $50 million by the time of the Iowa caucuses in early 2016, with the money divided between the campaign’s budget and a super PAC.
Instead of catching the party by surprise, as he did in 2008, he would be one of several former candidates seeking a revival.
“That’s the question we’re going to find out,” said Chip Saltsman, Huckabee’s political consultant. He is confident that Huckabee can find a path ahead. “Typically we nominate someone in our party” who has run before, he said.
Huckabee’s moves come after two center-right heavyweights, former Florida governor Jeb Bush and 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, have signaled their interest in running in 2016. That has forced conservative candidates to map out strategies on how best to match them on money and infrastructure.
In the meantime, Huckabee continues to tour the country in his sparkling bus, which is outfitted with flat-screen TVs (tuned to C-SPAN), plush leather chairs and, on Sunday, fragrant bags of Famous Dave’s barbecue.
“It used to be just Eric Woolson and I driving around,” Huckabee recalled, referring to the political aide who guided his past Iowa campaign.
“Back when he ran in 2007-2008, the biggest question was, who is Mike Huckabee?” Amann said an hour earlier, reacquainting his flock to Huckabee. “That’s all changed. He needs no introduction.”
The high profile gives Huckabee a solid start, but in a field that expands by the day, it is only that and hardly a guarantee of success.
Huckabee doesn’t seem to mind. “Oh, it was fun,” he said of his first campaign, before heading off to the next stop. With another wink, he said, “Still is.”