Watch Jake Tapper’s interview with Mike Huckabee on “The Lead” on Wednesday at 4 p.m. EDT on CNN.
Mike Huckabee launched his second presidential bid here Tuesday, casting himself as a guy with small town roots who can relate to the economic and security concerns of average American families.
“I truly am from Hope to higher ground,” Huckabee told a roaring crowd Tuesday in Hope, Arkansas. “So it seems perfectly fitting that it would be here that I announce that I am a candidate for president of the United States of America.”
Huckabee’s pitch didn’t come from his multimillion-dollar beachfront home or the anchor desk where he spent years as a Fox News host. Instead, he billed himself as the hometown boy from Hope.
The setting just so happens to be the shared birthplace of Huckabee and former President Bill Clinton – an ideal backdrop for Huckabee to draw a contrast with Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton. In fact, Huckabee is already framing himself as the only Republican contender who has taken on the “Clinton machine” and won.
But first, Huckabee has to survive the Republican primary.
“As my dad likes to say, we’re at a great advantage because we’ve been through this before, and we’re at a great disadvantage because we’ve been through this before,” said Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the candidate’s daughter and campaign manager. “He’s going to have a bigger target on his back.”
Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor and Southern Baptist minister, won over Iowa voters in 2008 with his folksy charm and expert grasp of retail politics. This time he’ll face an even more crowded and well-funded GOP field. And after spending years bouncing from his home in Florida to New York City for his lucrative media gig, that everyman appeal could wind up being a tougher sell.
The prospective GOP field is chock-full of candidates vying for Huckabee’s core supporters: Evangelical caucus-goers. He will likely be up against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who are both sons of pastors. Then there is Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, all of whom are highlighting their faith as they weigh presidential bids. Plus, there’s former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, whose appeal among evangelicals helped him win the 2012 Iowa caucuses.
Huckabee used his announcement as an opportunity to take a swipe at some of those GOP rivals, particularly ones who are still holding their seats in Congress. “If you live off the government payroll and want to run for an office other than the one you’re elected to, then have the integrity and decency to resign the one you don’t want,” he said.
The abundance of likely candidates means it will be hard, if not impossible, to coalesce support around a single candidate and score a decisive win the way Huckabee did in Iowa in 2008.
Huckabee peaked early that year. After the Hawkeye State, he notched disappointing finishes in other early states and his fundraising dried up. He dropped out of the race and landed a show on Fox News. He also released a book entitled “Do the Right Thing: Inside the Movement That’s Bringing Common Sense Back to America.” It landed on the New York Times best seller list. Since then he’s written four more, including his most recent manifesto “God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy,” which hit shelves earlier this year. He’s found other ways to make money, too, including a stint doing infomercials for a questionable diabetes treatment.
If he’s come a long way from Iowa, Huckabee has come even further from his modest, boyhood home in Hope.
“I hate to say it, but I mean, give me a break. You live in a $5 million house in the panhandle,” said Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. “He says, ‘I live in the redneck Riviera. Those $5 million houses on the beach? Those ain’t redneck.”
The house isn’t quite $5 million. Huckabee primarily resides in a six-bedroom, beachfront home on the shore in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, worth about $3 million, according to property records. He also has a home in North Little Rock, Ark., valued at about $500,000.
But Huckabee maintains a devoted following, particularly among evangelicals, Reed said.
“There is a deep reservoir of affection for Mike Huckabee among evangelical voters,” Reed said. “My sense is people of faith hold him in very high regard, and he connects with these voters unlike anyone I have seen in my career. He will be a force to be reckoned with in 2016.”
Polls show Huckabee is well known and well liked among Republicans, no doubt helped along by his weekly Fox News show that eventually came to draw 1.3 million viewers. When Republicans ranked which GOP contenders cared most about people like them and which shared their values, Huckabee came in second behind former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in both categories in an April CNN/ORC poll.
Huckabee is laying the groundwork to expand his appeal beyond evangelical voters to low-income and working families, in part by highlighting his own humble roots. His dad was a fireman and mechanic, while his mother was an office worker.
“Power and money and political influence have left a lot of Americans lagging behind. They work hard, lift heavy things and sweat through their clothes grinding out a living, but they can’t seem to get ahead or in some cases, even stay even, ” Huckabee said. “My parents were like that.”
As for facing off against the so-called Clinton machine, it’s sure to be part of his pitch.
“I challenged the deeply entrenched political machine that ran this state,” Huckabee said Tuesday. But it’s a stretch to say Huckabee faced the Clintons head on. In 1993, Huckabee ran for Arkansas lieutenant governor at a time when Democrats dominated the state and Bill Clinton had recently won the White House. He campaigned – and won – under the slogan “unplug the machine and empower the people.”
But there were moments when he worked closely with the Clintons, too. In 2005, Huckabee and Bill Clinton stood alongside one another, sharing their mutual battles with weigh loss, as part of a joint initiative to combat childhood obesity.
“I don’t have a global foundation or a taxpayer funded paycheck to live off of. I don’t come from a family dynasty, but a working family,” Huckabee said in a dig at Hillary Clinton and many of his fellow Republicans. “I grew up blue collar and not blue blood.”
Huckabee’s aides are working to ensure his 2016 bid isn’t as brief as his previous run. Advisers said they will hustle to rebuild his support in Iowa, and they are lining up high-dollar fundraisers to help sustain a campaign for the long haul.
“The key is what kind of resources do you have beyond Iowa,” said Bob Vander Plaats, chief executive of the social conservative organization The Family Leader in Iowa. After years in the public eye as a former presidential candidate and Fox News personality, “I don’t think he can come in with $500,000 and say, ‘I’m a real candidate,’” Vander Plaats added.
Gidley declined to name the donors who have pledged to support Huckabee, but there are signs Team Huckabee is not bluffing. Ronnie Cameron, the chief executive of an Arkansas-based poultry producer who has given millions to conservatives, said he would back Huckabee if he jumps in the race.
Huckabee’s family is all but saying he will run. He is already scheduled to appear at a series of “Factories, Farms & Freedom” events in Iowa in the days following the announcement.
“At the end of the day he did feel called to be in the race and our family is supportive of that,” Huckabee Sanders said.
CNN’s Jeremy Diamond contributed to this report.