The 2008 also-ran is suddenly the hottest Republican in the 2012 presidential field. Bush adviser Mark McKinnon, who's chronicling the race for The Daily Beast, talks with Mike Huckabee’s top strategist.
Mike Huckabee is the dark horse no longer. In a poll released last week of potential 2012 Republican candidates, Huckabee led the list with 40 percent of voters overall and 71 percent of Republicans who would seriously consider voting for him, followed by Mitt Romney (39/65 percent), Sarah Palin (33/65 percent), Newt Gingrich (29/60 percent), Tim Pawlenty (18/32 percent) and Haley Barbour (15/26 percent).
He has the highest rated weekend cable political show, he’s just published a new book, his PAC is flush and he’s on the stump campaigning for Republican candidates.
All that sends him to the top of my picks for the 2012 field.
“Somebody said, ‘Your decision to stay in Iowa so much was just brilliant.’ And I said, ‘The fact is, we had enough money to fly to Iowa. We just didn’t have enough money to fly back, so we stayed there for awhile.’”
The race for the Republican nomination could very easily come down to Huckabee vs. Mitt Romney. The question will be whether Tim Pawlenty can get enough traction to split votes with Romney. But no matter how hard those two try, they won’t be able to peel away many social and Christian conservatives from Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister who talks their talk and walks their walk. He’s a great communicator and could easily expand his appeal beyond the narrow but enthusiastic base of support he attracted in 2008. If Sarah Palin runs, however, she’ll split votes with Huckabee and it will be a free for all which could create some fascinating dynamics in the early primary states. And there is, of course, still plenty of time for a fresh face to show up and shake things up. Knock, knock John Thune.
Here’s how they stand, by my reckoning, three years from election week 2012.
1. Mike Huckabee 2. Mitt Romney 3. Tim Pawlenty 4. Sarah Palin 5. Newt Gingrich 6. John Thune 7. Haley Barbour 8. Mitch Daniels 9. Joe Scarborough 10. Rick Santorum
To figure out how Huck has vaulted to the front, I caught up with his 2008 campaign manager, Chip Saltsman, the funny, wise-cracking quipster who appeared to be everywhere for Huckabee in the last campaign. At times it seemed like the entire campaign staff was just Huckabee and Saltsman. As a frontrunner now, Huckabee will have the luxury of raising more money, hiring more staff, and being taken very seriously this time around.
I caught up with Saltsman by phone in his home state of Tennessee.
So give me just a quick 60 seconds on the last presidential [race]. What’s your summary of that contest and Huckabee’s role in it?
I think Huckabee’s role from the very beginning was a long-shot dark horse. He was able to connect in a way that not many have connected with the American people in a long time. On a parallel path, it was the same on Obama’s side. He was able to connect in a way that we haven’t seen in quite awhile. People were excited about it. It was an election where it wasn’t the greatest election to be a Republican. I’ve always said at the end of the day that at the primary part of it, we like to elect those people that have run before. John McCain had definitely done that. If you look back, we haven’t had a guy that hasn’t run before since Eisenhower. (I kind of put an asterisk in front of George W. Bush because he was running for his father’s second term.) Everybody else had run before, had done the right work. [McCain’s] a guy that deserves it, he’s worked hard, he’s a great American hero. I think that’s ultimately what took him over the finish line.
So tell us about what Huckabee’s up to today?
He’s actually in Tennessee. He’s doing some book signings in Memphis and I’m going to see him tonight in Nashville.
And this is his newly published book, 12 Stories That Celebrate the True Holiday Spirit?
What’s that about?
It’s a collection of Christmas stories from his life and background that inspire the true meaning of Christmas. It’s a great book in the sense that you give it to people about a month before Christmas because it’s a great way to get in the mood of what Christmas is truly all about.
Tell us about his Fox gig. How’s that going?
Well, he’s the No. 1-rated show on cable on the weekends and it’s not even close. I think he triples or quadruples the viewership of all the other cable shows. It’s created a niche following. It’s given him a great platform. He loves doing the show, and it’s a very Mike Huckabee-type of show. Everything from the guests he brings on (talking about issues that he wants to talk about) to the band at the end of the show (he absolutely loves playing with the Little Rockers). I can tell you, that was one of those things that the producers and everybody else said, “You’re crazy for wanting to do music on a show like this.” He just put this foot down and said, “No, this is something that’s important to me.” It kind of helps define who he is and music is a big part of his life.
So here we are about three years out, and it’s never too early to start handicapping these deals. Of course, he’s being very diplomatic about it, but he’s not being overly coy to say, “No way, no how, ever again.” He says that it’s flattering. So a poll that came out last week has him running first in the Republican field. Tell us what that means. Do you think he might run? If so, how does that look to you?
I certainly hope he does, because I think he’d be a great president. Obviously, it’s better to be first in the polls than last. We’ve been the asterisk before, and that’s a hard sled. Especially in a Republican primary, it’s good to be out front. Of course it’s way, way early.
So this will be a much different drill being the frontrunner. How’s he going to handle that?
If we runs, we’ll figure it out. Obviously, money becomes a lot easier, organization becomes a lot easier. In the last election, we made decisions that could have been our last because of the lack of money we had. I said that every decision we made was important because it could be our last. Somebody said, “Your decision to stay in Iowa so much was just brilliant.” And I said, “I wish I could take credit for it. The fact is, we had enough money to fly to Iowa. We just didn’t have enough money to fly back, so we stayed there for awhile.”
Strategy of necessity. Are there any things you would have done differently in 2008?
Sure, when you get a chance to look back at it, there’s a lot of things you’d do differently. The one thing that I’ve always said at the end of the day was to let him be himself. At the end of the day, the campaign has to be about the candidate.
So the Huckabee brand is in good shape? He didn’t do anything to hurt the brand?
Absolutely. I think he’s done nothing but improve on it this last year. I give a lot of credit to him for driving that train and people like Sarah Huckabee who have helped him. They’ve just been working hard.
Chip, A) what do you think it will take for him to make a decision, and then B) It’s kind of a non-sequitur, but what about the media’s (and everybody’s) obsession about the internecine fight within the party between the progressive wing of the Republican Party and the more conservative wing?
You know, I think we’ve all learned this year how many lifetimes happen in politics during cycles. If you’d have guessed right now that we would have won a governor’s race in New Jersey and Virginia a year ago, nobody would have even thought that was possible. Lots of things are going to happen, and I think the governor is just going to focus on the 2010 cycle first and help get a lot of people elected. He’s involved in a lot of primaries and elections all around the country like Florida with Marco Rubio (and a couple others) and governor’s races across the country.
He’s got a PAC, right?
Yeah, he’s got his PAC, and he’s raising money, and endorsing candidates that he thinks would be great candidates for our party and great for our country. He’ll sit down after the 2010 cycle with his family, much like he did in 2008 and make that decision. And it’s a very personal decision. You’ve been with candidates who have made that decision.
Your job is pretty simple. You just lay out the groundwork and say, “This is where we’re at today. This is what we’re going to have to do to get from here to there. Do you want to do it?”
So the Rubio race is a good example of what we’re talking about in terms of the eternal battles going on in the Republican Party. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Yeah, once you’re in one, you always want to say that primaries are healthy. But every primary that we’ve seen, whether it’s for president or for Senate or for governor, those primaries tend to make the general election candidate a lot better, healthier, ready to go. It’s able to get all the primary issues on the table and decide as a party who’s best to represent us. I think the Rubio-Crist race is a great example of one that really is going to help define the party and help us as we move forward. If Crist wins that primary, Marco Rubio will be someone that pushed him to be the best candidate he can be. And vice versa. And if Rubio is the nominee, I think Crist will get credit for making him a better candidate.
As vice chairman of Public Strategies and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, corporations and causes, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Governor Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono.