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02.23.11

Huckabee: 'I'm Not a Megalomaniac'

The Fox News pundit’s desire to make a good living, praise for the first lady, and candid answers about Afghanistan and granting clemency to a convict are not signs of a man bent on a 2012 campaign. “I don’t think I’m the only person who can save America," he tells Howard Kurtz.

For those keeping score at home, here are five reasons why it doesn’t look like Mike Huckabee is running for president:

1. He admitted he has no idea what to do about Afghanistan.

2. He confessed that he wants to keep making a nice salary at Fox News.

3. He offered an impassioned defense of his decision to grant clemency to an Arkansas convict who went on to kill four police officers.

4. He has bulked up again and does not look in shape for political combat.

5. And, yes, he praised Michelle Obama.

One day after a get-together with reporters, the former governor said in an interview that he finds the endless questions about his 2012 plans “frustrating”—but hesitates to say that to avoid headlines that “Huckabee doesn’t want to run because he’s complaining about the process.”

Why the hesitation? “I’m not a megalomaniac,” he declared with a broad smile. “I don’t think I’m the only person who can save America. I wouldn’t vote for someone who was that full of themselves. It’s a dangerous thing to have someone in a public office who believes he is not a public servant, he is the messiah.”

If the requirement for a presidential run is an eagerness to embrace an insane process, “maybe we should just elect a crazy person. Let’s go to an asylum and pick the nuttiest guy we can find.” But when he expresses doubt—normal, human doubt—about running the marathon a second time, says Huckabee, “I end up looking like an indecisive has-been.”

The Fox News host, sporting a purple tie, said he loves campaigning but is tired of unprepared reporters who ask “the same question 300 times. If I tweeted it, would you pay attention? If I Facebooked it, would you pay attention?” Well, that seems to work for another potential Republican candidate.

In his new book A Simple Government, Huckabee takes a swing at rival Mitt Romney for the mandatory health insurance plan he launched as governor of Massachusetts, calling it a failed attempt at “socialized medicine.” Romney, he told me, “has got to deal with it, but I don’t necessarily think it’s a political killer. He should just come out and say, ‘That’s what states do, they try things. It was a bold move. Not all of them work.’”

On Wednesday, Huckabee held court over tea and finger food in a Washington hotel, at an event sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor that served as a kickoff to his 41-city book tour.

He noted that he’s polling near the top of nearly every GOP preference poll—including such states as New Jersey and Pennsylvania—proof, said the former preacher, that he is no longer viewed as “the evangelical candidate.”

But his language indicated a distaste for the process, and not just because he said the Social Security retirement age might have to be raised and Medicare might have to shift to a voucher system. He said he didn’t like “standing with 14 guys on a stage” answering questions about evolution rather than education. And he recalled having to cash in his life insurance and annuities to run for president last time, and said he doesn’t want to end up “completely destitute” this time if he gets sick or retires.

“If I run, I walk away from a pretty good income,” the Fox News commentator said, which is why it makes sense to delay a decision.

“We don’t have to think everything the other side proposes is immediately and altogether bad… Rather than condemning Michelle Obama, we ought to be thanking her and praising her.”

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What about Afghanistan, which he said looks like “the surface of the moon” and where he sees no endgame? “I don’t know. I don’t think any of us know exactly”—not exactly a poll-tested answer.

Huckabee told me that “by the time I’d become a candidate, I’d certainly have a more articulated position. We need to define what it is we’re accomplishing there. Are we fighting terrorism, or are we nation-building?”

The man who once lost 100 pounds and wrote a diet book defended the first lady’s anti-obesity campaign, which has drawn flak from the likes of Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh. “She’s been criticized unfairly by a lot of my fellow conservatives,” Huckabee said, adding: “We don’t have to think everything the other side proposes is immediately and altogether bad… Rather than condemning Michelle Obama, we ought to be thanking her and praising her.”

Huckabee grew animated when Newsweek’s Eleanor Clift asked him about commuting the sentence of Maurice Clemmons, who was accused of killing four Seattle-area officers and was later killed by another policeman. He said the decision could “destroy” his presidential chances, but defended it as an attempt to help “a poor, black kid from a single-family home” who had been sentenced to 108 years for aggravated burglary—and had already served 11 years. Had Clemmons been white, Huckabee said, he never would have gone to prison. The outcome, he added, “aches me to the bone.”

That sounded like a candid answer, not one calibrated to play well in Iowa and New Hampshire. Which won’t be a problem if all Huckabee wants to do is sell books in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.