Mike Huckabee’s Encore in Iowa

10 minute read

You could argue that Mike Huckabee began his second quest for the White House beneath a giant picture of half-naked hedonists sprawling drunk in flower crowns while a Roman emperor prepares to burn Christians at the stake. The wall-size painting, Nero’s Torches, hangs at the Krakow National Museum in Poland, and it was there, in mid-November, that Huckabee issued his call to America’s preachers to rejoin the political fray.

“We sometimes forget in America that our country is in the trouble it’s in not because we failed to elect the right politicians,” he told the carefully assembled group of about 100 pastors, including 20 from Iowa, 22 from South Carolina and 10 from New Hampshire and Nevada. “It’s because we have failed to present the right message from the pulpits of this land.”

It will surprise few that Huckabee’s trip had been arranged by an evangelical political organizer, David Lane, who initially tried to recruit New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to lead the group as a sort of precampaign baptism. When Christie declined, Huckabee jumped at the chance. After losing in his bid for the Republican nomination in 2008, Huckabee created a show on Fox News that gave him a Saturday-night audience of 1.3 million likely Republican-primary voters, wrote four books, carefully grew his base of Facebook and email followers and launched a talk-radio commentary career, all while continuing to travel the country to support Republican candidates and meeting regularly with conservative pastors in off-the-record settings.

Now, as his guests finished dinner, he did what Baptist pastors do far better than regular presidential candidates–tell his audience what it all means. Just a day earlier, Huckabee had taken the group on a tour of Auschwitz. The Holocaust, he explained, took place because the Nazis “systematically removed God from their culture and their society.” Then he pivoted to present-day sins an ocean away, where he believed a similar mistake had been made. “Fifty-five million murdered in our own country in the wombs of their mothers,” he said of U.S. abortions. “The soul of America is in real trouble.”

A few weeks later, on live television, he announced the end of his Fox show. “God hasn’t put me on earth just to have a good time or to make a good living,” he said. “But as we say in television, ‘Stay tuned.'”

A Second Chance

Even before Huckabee jumped in, the GOP field was already shaping up like a schmaltzy made-for-TV movie, re-enacting the Republican nomination contests of yore. Yet another, younger Bush son, Jeb, began working donors in Connecticut. The two-time loser Mitt Romney hinted to his moneymen that the third time might be the charm. And the GOP’s favorite debate-stage gadfly, Ron Paul, passed the crown to his son Rand. Meanwhile, an impressive, if predictable, passel of governors began hiring staff with little evidence that they knew how to distinguish themselves from one another.

Huckabee, in short, felt a welcoming tug. To understand his positioning in this latest overcrowded field, one must return to his first presidential campaign–a motley, jury-rigged roller coaster that achieved one marvelous success before fizzling in catastrophe. With the actor Chuck Norris; a few top aides, including two of his three children; and hardly any money, the former governor of Arkansas won the Iowa caucuses in 2008 with more than 40,000 Republicans turning out to support him, more than any other candidate in recent memory.

Some chalked that win up to religious voters, who still have a huge sway in the Iowa GOP. But when Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum tried to repeat Huckabee’s formula four years later, playing the most God-fearing pol in a crowded field, he pulled fewer than 30,000 people to caucus in the same state.

The difference was Huckabee himself. One of the most talented retail politicians of his generation, he contained multitudes: part-time pastor, two-term governor, lifelong broadcaster, dedicated culture warrior, economic populist, health nut, class fighter and the second would-be President from a town called Hope. In Iowa he campaigned as much against the economic elitism of the Republican Party as anything else. His was an us-against-them fight. “The President ought to be aware that the people struggle,” he said in those final weeks, on a visit to Muscatine, Iowa, as he detailed his hardscrabble upbringing, citing as evidence the scraping, pumice-laced Lava soap his family used to buy. “Heck, I was in college before I found out it wasn’t supposed to hurt to take a shower,” he would say.

When other candidates defended the economic record of then President George W. Bush, Huckabee pointed out that the middle class was already beginning to fail. “I am out to change the Republican Party,” he said in a final appearance on CBS’s Face the Nation. The millions that Mitt Romney spent to disqualify Huckabee through TV ads had less effect than his riposte, a veritable blueprint for Barack Obama four years later: “People are looking for a presidential candidate who reminds them of the guy they work with rather than the guy who laid them off,” Huckabee joked.

Seven years later, the frustration and fear of economic insecurity has moved from the margins to dominate the political debate. Former Florida governor Bush has begun to build his campaign on the alliterative phrase Right to Rise, a reference to the failing American income ladder. Romney has started planning a third run, with the promise to focus more on lifting up those who are struggling.

“Many of the themes that I focused on in 2008 are more prevalent today than even then–themes that I was somewhat ridiculed for,” Huckabee explained to Time on Jan. 12 as he prepared to return to Iowa and South Carolina to promote his new book, a culture- and class-war treatise called God, Guns, Grits and Gravy. “There were a lot of folks who thought that if they worked hard, put a few extra bucks back, they would be closer to making a climb a rung or two up the ladder. As it turned out, that hasn’t happened.”

Last time, the message could take him only so far. Huckabee’s failure to build a real campaign structure, and some strategic mistakes–competing in Michigan and staying positive in the nasty do-or-die state of South Carolina–relegated him to a close second place in the first Southern primary, a death knell for his tiny campaign. “Once the momentum caught up with the lack of organization, we were done in,” says Ed Rollins, who worked on the 2008 Huckabee campaign. Rollins says Huckabee “doesn’t like the political class” and his fundraising was often too passive. “As a preacher, he stood up there and made a great speech and passed the basket.” For much of the campaign, Huckabee didn’t even have a finance director, and his campaign manager’s BlackBerry buzzed every time someone gave $100 online.

This time, Huckabee says he needs $50 million by the Iowa caucuses in February 2016 to mount a serious campaign. It’s an ambitious target for him, but his staff believes there are several deep-pocketed donors who will step forward to fund a super PAC with unlimited donations for campaign ads if he runs. “The super PAC has changed everything from 2008,” he says.

Huckabee could also benefit from a rejiggered primary calendar. Whereas a loss in South Carolina was his downfall in 2008, the Deep South is likely to have a bigger say in the early nominating process this time. Officials in five Southern states–Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas–are coordinating to hold a March 1 “SEC primary,” which will immediately follow those in the traditional early-voting states. Huckabee won four of those Southern states in 2008, even after losing South Carolina. “We play with the rules we have,” he now says.

New Spin, Old Record

Like Bill Clinton nine years earlier, Michael Dale Huckabee was born in Hope, Ark., back when the town of 8,000 was known mainly for trying to grow watermelons that weighed nearly 200 lb. His mom was a gas-company clerk and his dad a mechanic who moonlighted as a firefighter and warned his son not to look too far up the family tree. Huckabee graduated from Ouchita Baptist University with a religion degree and spent decades as a Christian broadcaster and small-town pastor. Unlike Clinton, he seemingly never aspired to enter cosmopolitan society, even after leaving the Arkansas governor’s mansion. When he finally began earning big money with his Fox News contract in 2009, he chose to build a $3 million beach house on the Florida panhandle, far from his Manhattan television gig, where he said he could always get good, cheap grits.

Those cultural markers still form the core of his political identity. His newest book, even more than his previous 11, is a cultural jeremiad, flying the red-state backwoods flag with abandon. He divides the nation into “Bubba-ville” for the God-fearing and “Bubble-ville” for the Wall Street bankers and liberal elites. He quotes country crooner Merle Haggard when describing his foreign policy views, criticizes Obama for not condemning Beyoncé’s explicit lyrics and repeatedly praises the reality show Duck Dynasty. “Status is a Ford F-150 truck; luxury is a crawfish étouffée and slaw on your pulled-pork sandwich; and privilege is front-row seats at a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert,” he writes. No one ever said Huckabee couldn’t preach.

Such rhetoric works well for the rural Fox News and Republican-primary audience, but it is less certain to save the great unwashed who vote in a general election. His policy positions will also be an issue. He supports, for instance, scrapping the federal income tax and replacing it with a more regressive national sales tax of about 30%. His record of increasing taxes in Arkansas and his work to expand state health coverage for poor kids have long drawn the ire of fiscal conservatives. And his views on marriage–male and female bodies were designed by God, he writes, “to complement each other physically”–have remained steadfast even as public opinion has shifted. In 2008, just 40% of the nation supported same-sex marriage. Today, according to Gallup, support has risen to 55%, including 78% of adults under the age of 29.

Holy Ground

Huckabee’s pastor tour of Europe ended–where else?–at the Ronald Reagan presidential library and museum in Simi Valley, Calif., north of Los Angeles, which is as close to holy ground as Republican politics can boast. There, again, Huckabee dialed up the pastors-in-politics stuff. “We did have the discussion of what are we called to do as Christian leaders,” said Paul Goulet, the pastor of a Las Vegas megachurch, who met Huckabee for the first time on the trip.

Now the real test begins. In the coming months, he will have to find a way to beat back the younger aspirants for the social-conservative crown, like Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Santorum and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. But with a crowded field of Establishment candidates battling it out for approval in the Acela corridor, Huckabee’s supporters see a window. It’s a long shot, but it’s never been different for Huckabee.

Though he won’t announce a final decision about running for months, the former governor is already sounding like a candidate. Asked about the prospect of another Bush, Romney or Clinton leading their party’s ticket, he offers a quick reply. “Well, there hasn’t been a Huckabee yet,” he laughs. “There is room for some new options.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com