Former Arkansas Gov. 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 non-profit 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, Ark., for a possible presidential campaign headquarters.
Huckabee is scheduled to spend part of November 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 in December, 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 over the last few years. Nevertheless, Huckabee maintains a connection with many conservative voters and regularly polls along with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) at or near the top of a potential Republican field.
An ordained Southern Baptist preacher with an easy-going 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,” his daughter and political confidant 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 Channel show that bears his name and a regular commentator on the network, exploring another presidential bid requires a delicate 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 appeared online, a Fox News executive said the network would review Huckabee’s status.
“We are taking a serious look at Governor Huckabee’s recent activity in the political arena,” said Bill Shine, executive vice president for programming. The network, he said in a statement is “evaluating his current status. We plan on meeting with him when he returns from his trip overseas.” A Fox News spokesperson also noted that the “Huckabee” show for this Saturday night was pre-taped prior to publication of The Post story.
Huckabee signaled Tuesday that he has begun thinking about areas where he might differentiate himself from some of his potential adversaries.
Asked about potential competition in pursuit of Christian evangelical 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. “They are unique to him, and he has to find his own way,” to win support.
Huckabee’s shift from semi-retirement to being on the cusp of another presidential run began in July 2013, according to 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 about 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, according to 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. The surveys, commissioned by allies, showed him running ahead of other possible GOP candidates by double digits, Huckabee said Tuesday.
“There were polls done that surprised me and got my attention — and led my friends to urge me to think of this again,” he said.
An additional key move came in the formation earlier this year of the non-profit 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, now 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 HuckPAC, a political action committee separate from the non-profit outfit. All would likely be players in a Huckabee campaign.
Republicans familiar with Huckabee’s efforts say the new advocacy group is designed to allow him to retain his Fox News Channel contract, since the group is not overtly political.
A Fox spokesperson said the network constantly evaluates the circumstances involving potential candidates. For example, Fox recently terminated its agreement with Dr. Ben Carson after ABC News reported that the retired neurosurgeon and author had filmed an hour-long documentary-style advertisement to introduce himself to the country.
According to Huckabee’s associates, the Fox News show may not be a runaway national success, but it 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.
He maintained a busy campaign schedule during this year’s mid-terms, attending more than a dozen events in Iowa in the past six months and campaigning with GOP candidates this year in Georgia, Kentucky, Arkansas and Florida.
Saltsman, in an interview, said Huckabee would be a formidable opponent for the Democratic front-runner, Hillary Rodham Clinton, in part because he has studied her since their shared Arkansas days. He said Huckabee’s “common touch” and his ability to talk about income inequality would contrast with Clinton.
Surveys show Huckabee would likely be a top-tier contender should he decide to enter the race. He drew more favorable responses than any other potential candidate this month 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, who briefly flirted with a presidential run in 2012, 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 conservative heroes 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 trip is funded by Lane’s American Renewal Project, which has raised millions of dollars from private donors to mobilize conservative Christian congregations.
In a video invitation sent to the pastors recruited for the trip, Huckabee appears on camera to “invite you on a remarkable journey to explore how God used extraordinary leaders to awaken nations during extraordinary times.” The roster of participants includes 22 pastors from South Carolina, 20 from Iowa, eight from Nevada and two from New Hampshire.
The courtship of the crucial social conservative wing of the GOP — and the wide-open nature of the race — is evident in the experience 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 Sen. Paul on another trip financed by Lane’s American Renewal Project.
Sherman said he 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, Ia. “At this point, it’s so early, I can’t say that he is the favorite.”
Bob Vander Plaats, the evangelical leader who chaired Huckabee’s 2008 Iowa campaign, said the emerging Republican field is so full of appealing contenders that he is going to wait and see how the race unfolds. He has also told Huckabee that as much as he likes him, he should not expect an endorsement.
“Governor Huckabee and I have been friends for a number of years, but he knows that today I have a lot of friends who might run for president—Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum,” Vander Plaats said in an interview Tuesday.
Even so, “Huckabee is positioned very well,” Vander Plaats said. “People love him. He left but never left. He’s on Fox News in people’s living room on Saturday or Sunday and he could walk away with the Iowa caucuses.”
Scott Clement contributed to this report.