Columns » Max Brantley

The man from Hope

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With the primary only 35 months away, it’s time to talk about Gov. Mike Huckabee’s presidential candidacy. I don’t really joke. Now is the time for a candidate to do some serious networking. On the strength of his national travels and public appear-ances, Huckabee is very serious indeed. He’s quite modest when asked about a potential candidacy by the likes of Tim Russert — “flattered” is a word I’ve heard him use. But he doesn’t deny it. And why should he? National exposure as a potential candidate helps build an employment resume and that’s perhaps the biggest single obstacle Huckabee faces should he run in 2008. When he leaves office in January 2007, he’ll have to support himself. Formula books by former governors aren’t quite as marketable as such books by current governors. The free gubernatorial support network — house, staff, security, nominal state travel for national exposure — that Bill Clinton used throughout his presidential run will no longer be available to Huckabee on account of timing. But he’s found ways to raise money from admirers before (remember Action America?) and he undoubtedly can do so again. A wealthy conservative admirer could underwrite a radio program. Or his alma mater, Ouachita Baptist University, could install him as a political fellow in residence. In the meanwhile, close supporters are prepared to get fitted for snow boots and parkas. One of them tells me, with enthusiasm, that he’ll be in New Hampshire and Iowa if the governor calls. I don’t disagree with this Huckabee backer’s assessment that the governor could get off to a good start. Personal politicking and a winning manner are very useful in small or caucus states. A good finish there and Huckabee could head to Southern primaries with Big Mo. Lord knows (and I do mean the evangelicals’ Lord) Huckabee knows how to rouse the Republican base south of the Mason-Dixon line. By his friend’s telling, it’s not crazy to imagine a nomination victory. Or at least a ticket-balancing No. 2 posi-tion with, say, John McCain. This is just idle speculative fun (or a nightmare) at this point. Huckabee has other obstacles, including better-known opponents. His record is littered with ethical lapses. Will the media ask about them or give him a Bush-style pass? Then there’s Janet Huckabee. Will the press depict her as the dare-anything First Tomboy who puts on few airs, whether living in a trailer mansion or selling siding? Or will they see instead the queru-lous, chip-laden woman whose charm wasn’t sufficient to win more than a single yellow-dog-Republican county in her race against a badly flawed Democratic candidate for secretary of state. In short: Can she be housebroken? Huckabee’s record on the environment is ripe for attack, along with his friendliness to the soft drink and tobacco lobbies. But our governor does a decent impression of a populist because he is one. He’s said stirring things about race, education, the value of the arts and child health. He hasn’t always followed through with effective policies and money, but analyses that illustrate this are likely to be rare and little-read. Political appearances count most and the slimmer governor is a proven performer. Final question: Would Huckabee put his presidential library in his hometown Hope, seat of a county that voted for his opponent, Jimmie Lou Fisher, in 2002?

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