Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who turned his stunning victory in the 2008 Iowa caucuses into a thriving talk-show career, is reconnecting with activists and enlisting staff to position himself in a growing field of potential Republican presidential candidates.
This week, Huckabee is leading more than 100 pastors and GOP insiders from early primary states on a 10-day overseas trip with stops in Poland and England.
Huckabee’s newly formed nonprofit advocacy group, America Takes Action, has begun to serve as an employment perch for his political team, recently bringing on a number of experienced campaign operatives.
Advisers are already scouting real estate in Little Rock for a possible presidential campaign headquarters.
Huckabee is scheduled to spend part of this month holding private meetings with powerful GOP financiers in Las Vegas, New York and California, gauging their interest in being bundlers for his possible campaign and asking for pledges of five-to-six-figure donations to his aligned organizations. And he is planning two strategy sessions next month, in Little Rock and Destin, Fla., near his new Gulf Coast home, to discuss timing, potential staffing and an opening pitch to voters.
In January, Huckabee will publish “God, Guns, Grits and Gravy,” his latest manifesto on politics and culture.
Huckabee, 59, who was governor of Arkansas for a decade, is one of the more enigmatic candidates in a potential Republican field. He has kept a relatively low political profile since 2008, largely staying out of the internal debates that have animated his party in the past few years. Nevertheless, Huckabee maintains a connection with many conservative voters and regularly polls along with former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) at or near the top of a potential Republican field.
An ordained Southern Baptist preacher with an easygoing demeanor, Huckabee presents himself as both a social conservative and an economic populist. He would be a potent draw for the bloc of religious conservative voters that plays a big role in choosing Republican nominees. His entry would complicate matters for other potential GOP candidates, such as Paul, Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who have each sought to win over religious conservatives as a core base of early support.
Huckabee’s “heart is into it,” daughter and political confidante Sarah Huckabee told The Washington Post in an interview Tuesday. “He is personally engaged and more aggressive in taking on meetings. He can’t wait to get back to South Carolina and Iowa.”
For the elder Huckabee, host of a weekly Fox News show that bears his name and a regular commentator on the network, exploring another presidential bid requires finesse: Fox News, as a policy, terminates its relationships with commentators who create exploratory committees or otherwise show serious intent to run for office.
“I have to be very careful about this,” Huckabee said in an interview Tuesday with The Post.
He noted that he has “obligations in broadcasting,” and that, when it comes to running for president, “I am not doing anything official at this point.”
On Wednesday, after The Post story about him appeared online, a Fox News executive said the network would review Huckabee’s status.
Asked about potential competition in pursuit of evangelical Christian voters, Huckabee said: “That’s part of the whole process of having a primary election period. . . . It provides an opportunity for comparisons.”
Huckabee declined to say whether he admired the pugnacious approach taken by Cruz, who favored a government shutdown last year and takes a more militant approach than that taken by GOP congressional leaders.
“I wouldn’t want to evaluate his direction or tactics,” Huckabee said.
Huckabee’s shift from semi-
retirement to being on the cusp of another presidential run began in July 2013, said Republicans close to him who requested anonymity to speak freely.
As Huckabee sat on the beach one day with his family, he was joined by Chip Saltsman, the longtime political strategist who had managed his 2008 campaign.
Saltsman asked Huckabee whether he was interested in running again. Huckabee shrugged and said he was not sure. Saltsman replied that if he had any inclination to do it, he needed to start mapping out a run as soon as possible in order to keep up with his potential rivals. Saltsman’s parting message: Call me when you’re ready. A couple days later, Huckabee rang Saltsman and said, “Let’s go.”
Since then, Huckabee has checked off a list provided to him by Saltsman and another strategist, Bob Wickers, said people familiar with his deliberations. First, Huckabee talked it over with his family, who encouraged him. Next, he began calling donors, just to talk, so that those relationships were warmed.
A startling moment for Huckabee came when he reviewed polling of GOP voters in Iowa and South Carolina. One survey, commissioned by allies, showed him running ahead of other possible GOP candidates by double digits.
“There were polls done that surprised me and got my attention — and led my friends to urge me to think of this again,” Huckabee said.
An additional key move came in the formation this year of the nonprofit advocacy group to serve as a landing spot for staff and money. The group, formed as a “social welfare organization” under a provision of the U.S. tax code, employs Saltsman, Wickers, Sarah Huckabee and a communications director, Alice Stewart, who is also a veteran of the 2008 Huckabee campaign. Chad Gallagher, another Huckabee aide, will continue to run Huck PAC, a political action committee separate from the nonprofit outfit. All would probably be players in a Huckabee campaign.
Republicans familiar with Huckabee’s efforts said the new advocacy group is designed to allow him to retain his Fox News contract, since the group is not overtly political.
On Wednesday, Bill Shine, Fox News vice president for programming, said the network would be “taking a serious look at Governor Huckabee’s recent activity in the political arena.”
Huckabee’s allies said that the Fox News show has been useful to Huckabee’s political brand, keeping him in front of Republican primary voters but not turning him into a political celebrity whose every move draws attention. He can counsel candidates, travel, and organize without much notice, all while keeping his name floating across the airwaves on Saturday evenings.
Surveys show Huckabee would be a top-tier contender should he decide to enter the race. He drew more favorable responses than any other potential candidate during an exit poll in Iowa, with 19 percent of Republican voters there saying they wanted Huckabee to be the next presidential nominee.
Yet Huckabee could face challenges engaging anew in the fractious, modern-day GOP. Huckabee said in 2013, for instance, that the Common Core State Standards, which have infuriated many tea party conservatives, were “near and dear to my heart.” He has since walked back those comments and called the program “toxic.”
Huckabee’s overseas trip this week is being organized by Christian political strategist David Lane as a tribute to three conservative icons and the role they played in the fall of communism. Called the “Reagan, Thatcher, Pope John Paul II tour,” it was billed to participants as a “spiritual awakening.”
The courtship of the crucial social conservative wing of the GOP — and the wide-open nature of the race — is evident in the comments of Brad Sherman, an Iowa pastor who backed Huckabee in 2008 and is joining him on this week’s trip. A year ago, Sherman traveled to Israel with Rand Paul on another trip financed by the American Renewal Project. Sherman has also heard from Cruz, Perry and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal — and he is open to all of them.
“I still think Huckabee would make a great president.” said Sherman, pastor of Solid Rock Christian Church in Coralville, Iowa “At this point, it’s so early, I can’t say that he is the favorite.”
Scott Clement contributed to this report.