They are men moving in different directions. Literally.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour are among the top-tier Republican presidential prospects, but the past two weeks offered a sharp contrast in their levels of readiness, messaging and even physical health.
Each separately faced off against the Washington, D.C., press corps over that time, and even before they uttered a word, it was clear who was more physically prepared for a run at the White House.
Reporters couldn’t help but notice that Barbour had trimmed down, while Huckabee appeared to be expanding.
After a meeting with about two dozen journalists last week arranged by the Christian Science Monitor, Huckabee was asked how much weight he needs to lose to run for president, and he sheepishly replied, “About 30 pounds.”
A week later, Barbour was asked about his apparent fitness while chatting with a gaggle of reporters after a speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
“I have lost a little weight and I certainly needed to. And hopefully I can lose some more,” Barbour said quite seriously.
(Huckabee famously dropped 100 pounds in an anti-obesity campaign as governor.)
The Republican primary, of course, will not be decided by a scale. But physical appearance has played a significant role in presidential politics since John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon met in the first televised debate more than five decades ago.
The weight issue is just one sign that suggests Barbour is on the verge of jumping into the presidential contest, while Huckabee, who insists he is seriously considering a bid, is content to enjoy his well-paid role as a television personality and author, at least for now.
On paper there is little doubt that Huckabee has a significant advantage.
He was the first choice of 25 percent of likely GOP primary voters in a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, thanks in part to his close finish and Iowa caucuses victory in 2008. Only former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was in Huckabee’s ballpark, earning 21 percent. Barbour barely made the list with less than 1 percent.
Eye on the Dough
While Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, has demonstrated an ability to capture the hearts of cultural conservatives, Barbour could be better positioned to tap into their wallets. He is known as a prolific fundraiser from his days leading the Republican National Committee and Republican Governors Association.
Barbour also has been more active in building an organization of grass-roots activists in the key early states, while Huckabee appears to be largely focused on his book tour and paid role with Fox News.
“If I run, I walk away from a pretty good income,” Huckabee said at the Christian Science Monitor event. “I don’t want to walk away any sooner than I have to because, frankly, I don’t have a lot of reserve built up. Most of my life was in public service. Therefore, I didn’t come away wealthy.”
In another hint that Huckabee isn’t close to entering the race, Fox announced earlier in the week that it would suspend its contracts with former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (R) and former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) because their entrance into the presidential race seemed imminent. It did not suspend its paid relationship with Huckabee because he is among those who have yet to show “serious intention to form an exploratory committee.”
Huckabee’s attention to his television persona may have already damaged his political career.
On the ground in New Hampshire, his state chairman from the 2008 cycle, Cliff Hurst, decided in January to set aside his friendship with Huckabee to work for Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R).
“Mike Huckabee is 100 percent AWOL,” said top Granite State GOP operative Mike Dennehy, who served as political director for Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) in the last cycle but is now leaning toward Barbour.
Neither Huckabee nor Barbour has yet to visit New Hampshire this cycle, but Barbour’s political action committee helped pay for a “free dinner and date night” at a Manchester restaurant last week. And Barbour is expected to visit the state for the first time in the coming weeks.
Huckabee largely brushed off questions about the exclusion of a New Hampshire stop on his current book tour.
“It’s cold up there, man. My Southern blood isn’t acclimated very well for it,” he joked last week. “I can always punt and say the publisher put the schedule together, and actually it did.”
The candidates also have had different experiences over the past 10 days that suggest one is better prepared for a substantive debate than the other.
Huckabee spent much of the week defending himself for wrongly saying President Barack Obama’s childhood home was Kenya, playing false into conspiracy theories suggesting Obama is not an American citizen.
Huckabee insists it was a simple mistake, but his comments to a radio host were detailed: “And one thing that I do know is his having grown up in Kenya, his view of the Brits, for example, very different than the average American,” he said, later adding that, “His perspective as growing up in Kenya with a Kenyan father and grandfather, their view of the Mau Mau Revolution in Kenya is very different than ours because he probably grew up hearing that the British are a bunch of imperialists who persecuted his grandfather.”
Regardless of whether it was a simple misstatement, the remark and ensuing controversy suggests a lack of preparation that one wouldn’t expect from a serious presidential contender.
It wasn’t the only recent example.
Huckabee offered few clearly formed policy positions while fielding questions from reporters at the Christian Science Monitor event. On the war in Afghanistan, for example, he said his perspective has been shaped by a personal visit in 2006.
“You go to Afghanistan, you look around and you think, ‘My gosh, am I in a country or the surface of the moon?’ You honestly could not see what it is that can happen here,” he said in an unusually harsh assessment of a country where American troops are still on the ground.
Asked what he thinks the U.S. should do there, he said: “I don’t know. The honest answer is that I don’t think any of us knows exactly.”
Meanwhile, in his Washington tour, Barbour largely avoided controversy over his recent racially charged comments related to growing up in the South. Instead, he steered the conversation to the economy and criticism of the Obama’s policies.
“Their policy is to drive up energy prices,” he told a dozen reporters gathered in a U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “Now, how is that good policy at any time when energy security is supposed to be a priority, but particularly at a time of turmoil in the Middle East in the oil-producing states?”
There’s time, of course, for both men to reverse course.
Huckabee said it would be “stupid” to jump into the race too soon, largely because the sooner a candidate jumps in, the sooner he has to pay for the related campaign apparatus.
He acknowledged that he’s often asked why he’s waiting so long, and counters by asking reporters which other candidates have announced. The answer, of course, is none. “I don’t get this whole thing that I had to make some decision about this today,” he said.
Until he decides, Huckabee’s prominent role on television and radio will ensure he is not forgotten. He can’t wait too long, however.
The first presidential debate is less than two months away.