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04.20.11

Will Mike Huckabee Take the Presidential Plunge?

Despite not campaigning or building a team, the former Arkansas governor's got the most intense support in all the GOP 2012 field. Now he's stirring from his long winter's nap—but his cushy gigs may prove too tough to give up, says John Avlon.

Can a man leading most GOP presidential polls turn a 2012 run down in favor of a weekend TV show, a mortgage, and motivational speeches?

That’s the question confronting Mike Huckabee, the one-time minister turned three-term Arkansas governor and 2008 presidential candidate turned Fox News host.

While other prospective candidates have been hard at work building their campaign machine, Huckabee has been biding his time, a reluctant candidate who keeps surging in the polls.

Despite his easygoing—some might say indifferent—approach to the campaign ahead, Gallup polls show that Huckabee enjoys the most intense support in all the GOP field.

The world’s not fair and you can’t buy love, but Huckabee’s effortless assumption of the pole position has his frustrated competitors asking, “What the Huck?” Is he going to run or not?

For months, the smart money was on Huckabee staying out of 2012. There was his notable non-firing from Fox, when Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum were suspended from their contributor gigs pending their decisions on prospective presidential runs. Most significant in the world of campaign Kremlinology were high-level former staffers going to work elsewhere. Wes Enos, the field director who helped Huck win Iowa last time, signed up with Michele Bachmann last month, while Danny Carroll, Huck’s Iowa co-chairman, signed on to the protest campaign of former Alabama Judge Roy Moore.

But sometimes the smart money is wrong, and with the clock ticking loudly now, there are strong signs that Mike Huckabee is waking up from his long winter’s nap.

"Governor Huckabee is considering a presidential race seriously,” his 2008 campaign manager, Ed Rollins, told me. “Personally, it’s my sense that he’ll go for it this time.”

“Governor Huckabee is considering a presidential race seriously,” his 2008 campaign manager, Ed Rollins, told me. “He’s receiving quite a bit of counsel and encouragement. He knows he has roughly a June 1 deadline to decide. Personally, it’s my sense that he’ll go for it this time.”

The numbers are just too compelling to turn down casually.

In Iowa, Huck leads the field by double digits—27 percent to Romney’s second place 16 percent—such a commanding head start that Romney is rumored to be considering bypassing the state entirely and putting his chips on New Hampshire.

In South Carolina, a statewide poll found Huck ahead of the rest of the established GOP field, with 26 percent of the primary vote. He also won the York County Straw Poll with 23 percent of the votes cast—a double-digit victory over the next two candidates, Gingrich and Bachmann.

And in Florida—Huck’s delegate-rich, newly adopted home state—a recent Mason-Dixon poll found him narrowly trailing Romney in a primary. Significantly, it also found that either Huck or Mitt would beat President Obama in the Sunshine State if the general election were held today. This is the kind of poll that should cause sleepless nights at Obama’s Chicago campaign headquarters.

For anyone who’s ever been bitten by the presidential bug, it is a tempting scenario—loaded with promise and tough to walk away from.

But has the Huckster waited too long to get in the game this time? Ed Rollins says no.

“If he makes a decision in the next several weeks, we’ll have plenty of time to put together a serious campaign team that can be very competitive,” Rollins told me. “I think he’d have a strong chance of winning not just Iowa again but a good show in New Hampshire—followed by wins in South Carolina and Florida. Once you put those states together, you’re well on your way to getting the nomination.”

The Des Moines Register’s political columnist Kathie Obradovich fills out the dynamic behind Huck’s buoyancy. “Huckabee is charming, famous, and a proven caucus winner,” she says. “That probably has as much to do with his poll numbers at this stage than any of his positions on issues or viability as a candidate. He’s a religious conservative but he’s more amiable and less intimidating than Sarah Palin, for example.”

Certainly, Palin’s slow-motion implosion has benefitted Huck. He overlaps with her social conservative populist constituency, but while Palin has seen her numbers fade on basic questions like whether she’s ready to be president, Huckabee offers a comforting contrast. He finished not just one term but three as governor. She can profess her faith, but Huckabee has studied the scriptures and ministered to the faithful. She is a talented speaker with a Spiro Agnew instinct for anti-elitism and pungent phrasing, but Huckabee is the best orator in the modern GOP field and positively genial by comparison. He’s a uniter and she’s a divider.

When it comes to authenticity and relate-ability, Huck can run circles around Willard Mitt Romney. At a time when most of our senators are millionaires, one of Huckabee’s greatest disincentives to run is the pay cut he would take to run for president. He recently took out a $2.8 million mortgage to build an 8,000-square-foot dream home in Florida. His family is enjoying material wealth for the first time. The hassle factor of running for president, plus the pay cut, are compelling reasons not to enter the race, with Huck frankly telling Roll Call, “If I run, I walk away from a pretty good income.” It’s not quite Cincinnatus, but as middle-class families struggle to emerge from the Great Recession, it might be close enough.

But Huck comes with baggage. He seemed to repeat the Kenyan anti-colonial slam on Obama earlier this year while promoting the lamely titled A Simple Government and was forced to make it clear that he did not endorse the Birther bile. Critics on the conservative side are circulating clips showing his now-disavowed support for climate change legislation. Glenn Beck’s recently taken to calling him the arch insult of “progressive” for refusing to denounce Michelle Obama’s anti-childhood obesity initiative. And he’s got a Willie Horton-esque scandal back in Arkansas, giving clemency to a prisoner who was later accused of child-rape and cop-killing. There’s no way that’s not going to leave a mark.

As with most presidential campaigns, Huck’s best day could be his announcement.

“If he doesn’t have a campaign organization in place in time to compete in the Iowa GOP straw poll in August, most caucus voters will write him off,” Obradovich cautions. “Huckabee’s popularity in polls might not translate into proportionate success in the caucuses, even if he does run. His supporters are willing to bet on a dark horse. Michele Bachmann starts in a strong position, especially with the home-schoolers who helped elevate Huckabee in 2008.”

Mike Huckabee can coalesce social conservatives while retaining at least the prayer of appealing beyond his base. He is too genial to give voice to the ugliest and angriest hyper-partisan attacks, while offering an appealing clear contrast to Obama. If he doesn’t feel the fire in the belly, he shouldn’t run. But with enduring strength in the polls absent any real effort, walking away from this opportunity would be unusual in the extreme while weakening an already weak GOP field.

John Avlon's most recent book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and a CNN contributor. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.