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Can Huckabee Overcome The 'New Car Smell' Of Other Candidates?

Mike Huckabee is again trying to run on his experience as governor of Arkansas, not his stint as a firebrand conservative analyst.
Nati Harnik
Mike Huckabee is again trying to run on his experience as governor of Arkansas, not his stint as a firebrand conservative analyst.

This post was updated at 11:40 a.m. ET.

Meet Mike Huckabee, former Arkansas governor. Forget about Mike Huckabee, Fox News host.

That's the message the GOP presidential hopeful is already conveying as he makes another bid for the presidency.

"We need the kind of change that really could get America from Hope to higher ground," he said, officially launching his campaign Tuesday in Hope, Ark.

To recapture the magic that propelled him to second place in 2008, he needs to re-embrace his roots and downplay the political celebrity he has created in the past eight years.

"What he's got to do is draw a contrast that shows, 'I'm not just a talk show host and I'm not just a Baptist minister, but I governed for over a decade and we achieved results in a very Democratic environment,' " said Iowa conservative activist Bob Vander Plaats, who chaired Huckabee's winning 2008 campaign in the first caucus state. He is so far undecided this go-around.

That message was also evidenced in the video that Huckabee rolled out last week.

The video was vintage Huckabee, harking back to how he took on the Clinton machine of the 1990s in what was then a very Democratic state. That's a valuable weapon he has now that he didn't eight years ago, with other Republican candidates now arguing they're best equipped to take on Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee.

Huckabee boasted of his populist record, touting his work raising family income and cutting taxes during his decade-long tenure as governor.

There were no clips of his eponymous talk show or his 2008 stump speeches except for the address he made to the GOP convention that year.

"I'm not a Republican because I grew up rich," he declared at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul. "I'm a Republican because I didn't want to spend the rest of my life poor, waiting for the government to rescue me."

His runner-up slot enabled him to dig out of his humble beginnings. A Fox News contract and radio show soon followed, and Huckabee and his wife were able to build a 8,224 square-foot Florida beachfront home worth $3 million.

"Janet and I, neither of us grew up thinking we'd see salt water in person," Huckabee told the Northwest Florida Daily News last year of the mansion he and his wife called home. "We both grew up dirt poor in Southern Arkansas ... For us, growing up, the thought that we would ever put our feet in salt water, no that would never happen."

The newfound financial freedom was reportedly one reason Huckabee passed on a 2012 bid, despite his rumored disdain for the eventual nominee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. In order to do so, he would have had to sever his media ties, which were his main source of income.

That's why it surprised many when he announced, without much warning, in January of this year that he would be stepping down from his Fox News Saturday evening show, Huckabee. But it was also a clear signal to those skeptical he would leave the lucrative private sector to re-enter the political arena that he was serious this time.

Huckabee was underestimated early on in 2008 in Iowa, too. He didn't even begin registering in polling there until the summer of 2007 and never surged into the lead until December of that year. He ended up winning the caucuses by 9 points.

He starts off the 2016 cycle not having to go from Pizza Ranch to Pizza Ranch praying supporters will show up, as Vander Plaats once recalled their team had to do, but with a sure buzz and a reservoir of good feelings once he heads to the state this week. He still trails Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in the latest surveys, but there's no clear front-runner yet.

That's both good and bad news for Huckabee. There are higher expectations this time around, both on fundraising and the crowds he will draw and the poll numbers he can expect as he becomes a candidate yet again.

"While people still genuinely like Gov. Huckabee and they trust Gov. Huckabee," Vander Plaats said, "there's still a certain flirtation with the new car smell of new candidates."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.