The former Arkansas governor begins his presidential race with long odds, but with a strategy for broader appeal.
HOPE, Ark.—Mike Huckabee jumped into the White House race Tuesday with a biographical flourish, wielding the cultural identity and traditional values learned in this small Southern town—also the birthplace of former President Bill Clinton—as the launching pad for his 2016 presidential campaign.
Inside a packed auditorium of several thousand roaring supporters, Huckabee recalled growing up here and being shaped by the lessons and experiences of his youth—his parents preaching honesty, his school reciting the Pledge of Allegiance twice daily, his baptism at age 10, his first job at a local radio station, the courtship of his wife, and, especially important, "how to handle a firearm and a fishing pole.
"So it seems perfectly fitting," Huckabee declared, his voice rising, "that it would here that I announce that I am a candidate for president of the United States of America!"
The event was expertly choreographed: a darkened stage, with an American flag plastered across the entire backdrop, framed three hanging television screens displaying Huckabee's campaign slogan, "Hope To Higher Ground." Huckabee delivered his speech flawlessly—despite repeated chants of "We like Mike!"—displaying an oratorical prowess sharpened by a career spent transitioning from the pulpit to the campaign trail to prime-time television.
Huckabee knows this, and he won't cede an inch of terrain in fighting for the support of Christian conservatives. But the former governor is also expanding his brand by touching on themes of economic populism, aimed at resonating with the working-class whites who dominate GOP primary politics. The message of Tuesday's campaign launch was rooted in Huckabee's cultural identity, with repeated references not only to Hope but to similar small towns throughout the South and across America—areas that he says are ignored by the coastal elites and political class in Washington, D.C. He cast his underdog White House campaign as symbolic of those places and the people who inhabit them.
"The journey that begins in Hope today can lead this nation to higher ground. But I cannot do it without you people being my partners," Huckabee said. "I'm going to let you in on a little secret: I never have been, and I am not going to be, the favored candidate of those in the Washington-to-Wall Street corridor of power. I'm going to be funded not by billionaires, but by working people who will find out if $15 or $20 contributions can take us from Hope to higher ground."
Huckabee, in soliciting small-dollar donations from his audience, used the opportunity to weave in a rare attack against his 2016 rivals. "I don't have a global foundation, or a taxpayer-funded paycheck to live off. I grew up blue-collar, not blue-blood," he said. "So I ask you to join with me today, not just so I can be president, so that we can preserve this great Republic, and that someday, your children and grandchildren can still go from Hope to higher ground."
The speech contained a range of policy prescriptions, most of which are boilerplate among Republicans, but a few that are certain to make Huckabee stand out from his GOP opponents. For one, he declared his opposition to the trade deals—like the one currently being debated in Congress, he implied—that he says hurt working Americans. He angrily denounced efforts to change Social Security or Medicare, arguing that people have been "forced" to pay into the system and should get the services they already paid for. Huckabee also proposed term limits "on all three branches of government."
All of these policy arguments stoked a populist tone that dovetail neatly with Huckabee's biography: the son of a small-town firefighter who became the rare man in his family to graduate high school and attend college; who took his future wife on their first date to a 24-hour gas station; married her when they were both teenagers; shuttled her to cancer treatments a few years later while he was going to school and working full-time; and later had three children despite being warned by doctors that his wife, Janet, might never conceive.
At that point, his personal journey took a political turn.
Having left behind a clergyman's career and risen to the rank of lieutenant governor, Huckabee took over when his successor resigned—and then stunned the Democratic-run Arkansas political establishment when, in 1998, he was elected to a full four-year term as governor. Huckabee inherited the most heavily Democratic state legislature in the country, and with it, an incredibly difficult job—a reality highlighted by a savvy campaign video and a glowing introduction Tuesday from longtime friend and current Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
"Even with a Republican majority, being governor is a tough job. And I think back to when Mike Huckabee was governor for 10 years as a Republican leader with a Democratic legislature—and Arkansas was as blue as any state in the nation. Those were tough times," Hutchinson said. "Mike Huckabee came into office having to govern in a bipartisan way to lead our state in troubling times. … He led our state with conviction, he led our state with conservative values. He lowered taxes, he balanced the budget for 10 years, he reformed education, he preserved our hunting and outdoor culture."
Hutchinson concluded, bringing the crowd to its feet with thunderous applause: "That is the type of leadership we need on the national stage."
These accomplishments are in keeping with the image of the former governor as a fighter; they also seemed aimed at deflecting attacks from some conservative groups, such as the Club for Growth, that have attacked Huckabee's fiscal record in Arkansas.
Still, Huckabee and his team likely recognize that many of his rivals for the Republican nomination rose to prominence in the tea-party era, and thus have produced policy records that are uncompromisingly conservative. If he can't maneuver to the right of them politically, Tuesday's launch showed nobody will outflank him culturally.
Though his political exclamations were repeatedly interrupted with applause, Huckabee's loudest and longest ovations came when he touted his religion and the values learned from it.
"We've lost our way morally," Huckabee said, drawing calls of "yes" and "amen" from the audience. "We've witnessed the slaughter of over 55 million babies under the name of choice, and we are now threatening the foundation of religious liberty by criminalizing Christianity and demanding that we abandon the biblical principles of natural marriage. Many of our politicians have surrendered to the false god of judicial supremacy, which would allow black robes and unelected judges to have the power to make laws, upending the equality of our three branches of government as well as the separation of powers so very central to the Constitution."
Huckabee paused, then declared: "My friends, the Supreme Court is not the supreme being!"
In launching his second presidential campaign, Huckabee also revisited a Democratic rival from 2008: Barack Obama. Huckabee attacked the president throughout his speech as ineffective and incompetent, but saved his harshest rebukes when discussing what he viewed as the president's lack of moral clarity.
"When I hear our current president say Christians should get off our high horse so we can make nice with radical Islamists," Huckabee boomed, "I wonder if he can watch a Western from the '50s to be able to figure out who the good guys and bad guys are!"
The crowd leapt to its feet and stayed there, chanting and whistling and clapping, as Huckabee paused to soak it in.
They didn't seem to mind that their hometown hero isn't beloved by the Republican establishment, or that he's a long shot to win the nomination, or even that he's no longer the favorite to win over the evangelicals who propelled him to a second-place finish in 2008. All they knew is that Mike Huckabee is one of their own. And for one day, for the crowd gathered in Hope, that was enough.
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