Mike Huckabee, Comeback Kid?

Several top contenders for the 2012 Republican primary have recently upped their pre-campaign presence: Sarah Palin quit her job as governor to travel the country giving speeches; Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is not running for re-election and has established PACs in key primary states Iowa and New Hampshire; and Mitt Romney has been busy making strategic endorsements for the 2010 elections.

One potential candidate who has not yet mobilized in this fashion -- yet who's managed to top recent polls for the 2012 Republican primary -- is Mike Huckabee. In November, Gallup found that 71 percent of Republicans would consider voting for Huckabee in 2012, as opposed to 65 percent for Romney and Palin. In March, Public Policy Polling found GOP primary voters in Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, and North Carolina more likely to vote for Huckabee than for Romney or Palin. But despite these signals, Huckabee has remained ambivalent about running. When Ben Smith profiled him in November, the former Arkansas governor seemed reluctant to leave behind a job he loves (hosting talk shows on Fox News and the radio) and worried about the financial feasibility of a presidential run.

This week saw another Huckabee profile, this one by The New Yorker's Ariel Levy. Huckabee emerges from the 10-page portrait as a mild, well-liked guy whose brains often sneak up on those who doubt him:

His communication is folksy but fluid; he never seems flummoxed, like George W. Bush, or befuddled, like John McCain, or unprepared, like Sarah Palin. "If we're running a race against their most articulate guy," Steve Schmidt, John McCain's former campaign manager, told me, referring to President Obama, "we should put our most articulate guy. Huckabee's that guy."

People are sometimes caught off guard by Huckabee's intellectual competence because of his rural Arkansas habits (he and his wife lived in a trailer while the governor's mansion was being renovated) and his outspoken evangelical views. Levy recounts her subject's annoyance at journalists who dismiss his 13 years of executive experience in order to cut straight to the question of whether or not he believes in evolution. During the 2008 race, Huckabee found such a question both vital to his personal faith and irrelevant to his presidential campaign. This, Levy writes, is "the defining paradox of Huckabee: his adamant resistance to being branded a zealot paired with his insistence that faith defines character and, consequently, has an essential place in government."

Religiosity aside, Huckabee's biggest vulnerability in 2012, were he to decide to run, would be his lack of fundraising prowess. "At the end of 2007," Levy writes, "Huckabee had raised less than nine million dollars, compared with Mitt Romney's fifty-four million -- which he augmented with thirty-five million of his own money -- and Hillary Clinton's hundred and seven million."

Raising money for a presidential campaign requires knowing the right people and playing the right cards, a game that Huckabee seems at least disinterested in and at most repulsed by. This personality quirk may have caused him to remain on the periphery of the 2008 primary even after he won the Iowa caucuses. Compared to John McCain and Mitt Romney, who had legions of deep-pocketed establishment players on their sides, Huckabee appeared a bit of a rustic alternative.

But with the fractured state of today's Republican Party, the establishment may be less of a deal breaker. In Steve Schmidt's words, as quoted in Levy's profile:

Really, there's three primaries within the Republican primary. There's the primary that's the evangelical wing of the Party, there's the establishment primary, and there's usually a maverick of an insurgent category. Whoever occupies two out of the three is the nominee.

Huckabee, Levy theorizes, could easily be packaged as an "evangelical insurgent."

As such, he would have to capture a good portion of the Tea Partiers who have rejected the Republican establishment -- that's where the "insurgent" would come in. His message, however, does not particularly line up to the Tea Party ethos. In a Politico survey of grassroots Tea Party leaders, Huckabee was branded a disappointment. Whereas he focuses on social conservatism, sounding off frequently on family values, homosexuality, and abortion, the Tea Party contingent is more focused on fiscal conservatism, for which he's come under fire from Rush Limbaugh and the free-market Club for Growth.

Huckabee's religious morality drives not just his stance on social issues but also some of his views on public programs; he offers Levy an ambiguous endorsement of universal health care based on a hypothetical child "sitting outside the door of the hospital choking with asthma."

Social conservatism may yet play a role in the 2012 election, but in order to capture the "evangelical insurgent" categories in the Republican primary, Huckabee would likely have to ramp up his fiscal rhetoric -- not to mention his fundraising efforts.