Mike Huckabee’s Encore in Iowa

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from TIME Magazine,

He never stopped running for President.

You could argue that Mike Huckabee began his second quest for the White House beneath a giant picture of half-naked hedonists sprawling drunk in flower crowns while a Roman emperor prepares to burn Christians at the stake. The wall-size painting, Nero’s Torches, hangs at the Krakow National Museum in Poland, and it was there, in mid-November, that Huckabee issued his call to America’s preachers to rejoin the political fray.

“We sometimes forget in America that our country is in the trouble it’s in not because we failed to elect the right politicians,” he told the carefully assembled group of about 100 pastors, including 20 from Iowa, 22 from South Carolina and 10 from New Hampshire and Nevada. “It’s because we have failed to present the right message from the pulpits of this land.”

It will surprise few that Huckabee’s trip had been arranged by an evangelical political organizer, David Lane, who initially tried to recruit New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to lead the group as a sort of pre-campaign baptism. When Christie declined, Huckabee jumped at the chance. After losing in his bid for the Republican nomination in 2008, Huckabee created a show on Fox News that gave him a Saturday-night audience of 1.3 million likely Republican-primary voters, wrote four books, carefully grew his base of Facebook and email followers and launched a talk-radio commentary career, all while continuing to travel the country to support Republican candidates and meeting regularly with conservative pastors in off-the-record settings.

Huckabee had taken the group on a tour of Auschwitz. The Holocaust, he explained, took place because the Nazis “systematically removed God from their culture and their society.” Then he pivoted to present-day sins an ocean away, where he believed a similar mistake had been made. “Fifty-five million murdered in our own country in the wombs of their mothers,” he said of U.S. abortions. “The soul of America is in real trouble.”

Even before Huckabee jumped in, the GOP field was already shaping up like a schmaltzy made-for-TV movie, re-enacting the Republican nomination contests of yore.

To understand his positioning in this latest overcrowded field, one must return to his first presidential campaign–a motley, jury-rigged roller coaster that achieved one marvelous success before fizzling in catastrophe. With the actor Chuck Norris; a few top aides, including two of his three children; and hardly any money, the former governor of Arkansas won the Iowa caucuses in 2008 with more than 40,000 Republicans turning out to support him, more than any other candidate in recent memory.

The difference was Huckabee himself. One of the most talented retail politicians of his generation, he contained multitudes: part-time pastor, two-term governor, lifelong broadcaster, dedicated culture warrior, economic populist, health nut, class fighter and the second would-be President from a town called Hope.

When other candidates defended the economic record of then President George W. Bush, Huckabee pointed out that the middle class was already beginning to fail.

Seven years later, the frustration and fear of economic insecurity has moved from the margins to dominate the political debate. Former Florida governor Bush has begun to build his campaign on the alliterative phrase Right to Rise, a reference to the failing American income ladder.

“Many of the themes that I focused on in 2008 are more prevalent today than even then–themes that I was somewhat ridiculed for,” Huckabee explained to Time on Jan. 12 as he prepared to return to Iowa and South Carolina to promote his new book, a culture- and class-war treatise called God, Guns, Grits and Gravy.

Last time, the message could take him only so far. Huckabee’s failure to build a real campaign structure, and some strategic mistakes–competing in Michigan and staying positive in the nasty do-or-die state of South Carolina–relegated him to a close second place in the first Southern primary, a death knell for his tiny campaign.

This time, Huckabee says he needs $50 million by the Iowa caucuses in February 2016 to mount a serious campaign. It’s an ambitious target for him.

His newest book, even more than his previous 11, is a cultural jeremiad, flying the red-state backwoods flag with abandon. He divides the nation into “Bubba-ville” for the God-fearing and “Bubble-ville” for the Wall Street bankers and liberal elites. He quotes country crooner Merle Haggard when describing his foreign policy views, criticizes Obama for not condemning Beyoncé’s explicit lyrics and repeatedly praises the reality show Duck Dynasty. “Status is a Ford F-150 truck; luxury is a crawfish étouffée and slaw on your pulled-pork sandwich; and privilege is front-row seats at a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert,” he writes. No one ever said Huckabee couldn’t preach.

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