Huckabee Gearing Up for ’08

Posted June 10, 2005 at 6:28pm

For Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), Washington, D.C., is becoming a home away from home.

Huckabee will be on Capitol Hill this week to testify before House and Senate committees on Medicare reform — the third time in three weeks he has been in the nation’s capital.

Huckabee’s heightened presence in D.C., along with a new, trimmer look, has generated considerable buzz among politicos both in Arkansas and nationally that he is positioning himself for a presidential bid in 2008.

When asked about his ambitions for national office in an interview last week, Huckabee demurred.

“I think it’s a little early,” he said. “It is not the big focus of my life right now.”

A source close to the governor, however, acknowledged that as of now, “he is planning to run for president.”

One Democratic operative in the state said “[Huckabee’s] running. Everybody here thinks he’s running.”

One of Huckabee’s fellow governors — Virginia’s Mark Warner (D) — took a step in that same direction Friday by forming a federal political action committee, which will allow him to raise money that could be spent on a national campaign.

Given the wide-open nature of the 2008 field (the first time since 1928 that neither a sitting president or vice president is seeking the nomination), neither Warner nor Huckabee — the two highest ranking officials in the National Governors Association — can be discounted.

“There is kind of an opportunity for a relative unknown who has a lot of political skills to make a real race out of it,” said former Arkansas Republican Sen. Tim Hutchinson. “[Huckabee] should not be underestimated.”

Although outwardly Huckabee continues to maintain that he remains undecided on a presidential race, planning has been ongoing for at least the past three years to position him for such a race when he leaves office in 2006 after 10 and a half years in the governor’s mansion, according to informed sources.

Huckabee took over as governor in July 1996 when Jim Guy Tucker resigned the office. He was elected to a full term in 1998 with 60 percent and beat back a serious Democratic challenge in 2002 with 53 percent.

He has twice run for the Senate, losing to Sen. Dale Bumpers (D) in 1992 and then mounting an abbreviated bid in 1996 before taking over the governorship.

Arkansas State Rep. Stephen Bright (R) said that Huckabee is “not limited just to a nationwide-type election,” adding that the possibility of another Senate race still exists.

Freshman Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) is up for re-election in 2008 and Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) seems likely to stand for a third term in 2010.

For now, however, the emphasis of Huckabee’s political team appears to be a presidential bid.

He has met once or twice a year over the past few years with his advisors to game-out his next steps to develop a national presence — although some within Huckabee’s orbit deny any such conversations have taken place.

Despite rumors that those meetings have included one-time Clinton White House political svengali Dick Morris, informed sources insisted that Morris has never been a part of the gatherings and plays no formal role with the campaign team.

That said, “the governor has had a personal relationship with Morris for a long time,” acknowledged one Huckabee source. “I would be shocked if they hadn’t spoken in the last two months.”

Morris did not return several calls seeking comment.

The goal set for 2005, according to those familiar with the Huckabee strategy meetings, is to further test him on the national stage through the release of his book — “Quit Digging Your Grave With a Knife and Fork” — and his assumption of the NGA chairmanship next month.

In preparation for his new job, Huckabee has been raising his visibility in Washington. On June 2 Huckabee delivered a speech at the National Institutes of Environmental Health Science on obesity in American youth and he was back in D.C. on June 8 to receive an award during the American Running Honors Gala.

“I’ll have to start paying property taxes if I stay up there any more,” Huckabee joked.

From his perch at the NGA, Huckabee is likely to continue his health-awareness campaign. He lost more than 100 pounds over the last two years and competed in the Little Rock Marathon in March with Iowa Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack (D).

“He is not going to pick polarizing issues,” said Dick Dresner, a pollster for Huckabee in past races. “He needs to raise his profile all around the political world.”

His book, a sort of manual for would-be dieters, has gained national attention and peaked at No. 9 on Amazon.com’s bestseller list.

Huckabee’s weight loss is simply the latest in a series of moves that have garnered him positive press both nationally and locally.

On Valentine’s Day, Huckabee and his wife, Janet, appeared with 8,000 others to convert their marriage to a covenant marriage, a move growing in popularity among conservatives. A covenant marriage limits the reasons for filing for divorce and requires the couple to seek counseling before taking such a step.

Then in April, Huckabee teamed with former President Bill Clinton on the Childhood Obesity Initiative, a two-decade long program to change eating habits among the young.

Aside from a fluctuating waistline, the two men have something else in common. Both hail from Hope, a small town in Arkansas immortalized by Bill Clinton’s famous political slogan: “I still believe in a place called Hope.”

Huckabee said the attention being paid to him is not indicative of a groundswell for a presidential candidacy.

“Michael Jackson is getting a lot of attention,” he said. “I don’t think he is running for president.”

Even Democrats, however, acknowledge that since the start of 2005, Huckabee has done a masterful job of finding national press.

“He has had an impressive flurry of homegrown media events,” said one Democratic consultant who follows Arkansas politics closely. “First it was mini Mike, then it was musician Mike, then it was marathon Mike, then it was Mr. Marriage Mike and moderate Mike.”