When former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) launched his new radio show this week, his first guest was former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) — an event that marked the culmination of a long thaw in the relationship of the two former rivals.
The implications for this intraparty détente are profound.
Second — and slightly more sensationally — Huckabee is now popping up as a vice-presidential possibility.
But how did we get here? After all, didn’t Huckabee once, during the 2008 election, accuse Romney of having “no soul”? Didn’t this passionate opponent of abortion rights once say that a human life was only worth $50 in Massachusetts? Didn’t this populist Southerner once rail against the socioeconomics dividing him from the patrician, Northeastern Romney?
Yes, yes and yes.
In their book Game Change, journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin write that during the 2008 primary, Huckabee groused, “I don’t think Romney has a soul.” That’s one of the most damning charges a former Baptist minister can level, and it sums up their bitter fight fairly accurately.
Less theologically but no less acerbically, Huckabee kept attacking Romney long after President Obama entered the White House. During the height of the healthcare battle in 2009, Huckabee warned against Obama’s plan by reminding people of Romney’s Massachusetts program, which contains provisions similar to those in the national plan and is hated by conservatives.
But beyond the political differences, there’s always been a socioeconomic divide between the two that’s seemed to chafe the folksy Huckabee.
Huckabee once lived in a triple-wide for 16 months. Romney grew up wealthy and owns several homes around the country, including one in San Diego, where he is reportedly installing a car elevator.
So why and when did Huckabee start to soften?
It’s not entirely clear, but there seemed to be a decided shift in his tone toward Romney in September 2011. What’s so interesting about that? Well, September marked the first time Romney sat for an interview on Huckabee’s Fox News TV show. When word of their chat was announced, political junkies sat up, marveled — and waited for fireworks.
But it was pure fizzle. More to the point, it was collegial fizzle, and after the successful chat, Huckabee’s rhetoric and tone started to shift.
One month later, he was asked on Fox News about Romney’s position on abortion, and Huckabee proved surprisingly generous, considering his past accusations on the issue.
“Romney himself will point out that Ronald Reagan was pro-choice at one point in his life and then became pro-life … so it’s not uncommon to change a position,” he said.
The comment was striking. Huckabee had compared Romney’s evolution on abortion to Reagan’s, which is as flattering a comment as one Republican can lather onto another.
Stylistically, too, Huckabee seems to have warmed to Romney. After a Huckabee-hosted forum in December 2011, he said of Romney, “he has performed flawlessly in all of the forums and debates.”
Considering the past six months, then, it’s not a surprise Huckabee booked Romney as his first guest, and it’s not a surprise that he has the potential of playing a big role in the 2012 election.
Huckabee is strongest where Romney is weakest — among evangelicals, Southerners and populists.
It’s a fait accompli that those reliably Republican groups will shift to Romney in the general election, but they might do so unenthusiastically. As he’s found out, grassroots enthusiasm isn’t something Romney can buy, but Huckabee’s charm is something that could sell it.
Huckabee could serve as something of a conduit from Romney to these disaffected groups — a valuable validation that the former Massachusetts governor has left the “Massachusetts” in him entirely behind.
More intriguingly, Huckabee’s name has suddenly started floating around as a vice-presidential possibility, and last weekend, he played coy when “Fox and Friends” asked him if he’d consider it.
“I love to say it this way,” he responded. “Don’t buy the corsage for the prom until you get the date. It’s just not good form.”
Putting Huckabee on the ticket wouldn’t just help Romney with evangelicals, Southerners and populists — it would also help him form a bridge with women, among whom polls show a wide gap between himself and Obama.
Huckabee has proven he can connect with women (even liberal “The View” co-host Joy Behar once called him her “favorite Republican”) and he has interviewed a wide range of ladies for his Fox News show, including Arianna Huffington, first lady Michelle ObamaMichelle ObamaFirst Nigerian girl taken by Boko Haram rescued WATCH: Obama accidentally steps on First Lady's dress at state dinner The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE and Bravo network dating expert Patti Stanger.
Finally, Huckabee has already been vetted — something most other potential vice presidents can’t say, and he won’t be startled by the limelight. After all, the man already has a radio show, TV show and best-selling books.
The Romney campaign still hasn’t given us a good idea of how it’s going to address some glaring problems that came up in the primary, but Huckabee would go a long way to solving some of them.
Heinze, the founder of GOP12.com, is a member of staff at The Hill. Find his column, GOP Presidential Primary, on thehill.com.