Huck keeps the 2012 field guessing

This is the 4th in a series of profiles of possible GOP presidential contenders. 

It was 5:30 in the morning when Chip Saltsman, Mike Huckabee’s campaign manager, got a call from the former Arkansas governor.

Huckabee was mad. 

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But it wasn’t because he was about to lose the 2008 Texas presidential primary (and subsequently drop out of the presidential race). It was because Saltsman had used the word “damn” in front of reporters at a breakfast the previous day.

Saltsman had been discussing the state’s importance, and had casually mentioned, “Texas is a big damn state.” The Dallas Morning News printed the obscenity, and Saltsman recalls that — as he was saying the words — he immediately knew he’d crossed the line.

“I said, ‘Oh, he’s not going to like that’… that was the only time he truly got mad at me,” Saltsman told The Hill.

In a way, it shouldn’t be surprising. Before his political career, Huckabee spent a lifetime in Christian ministry. At the age of 21, he staffed for James Robison, an evangelist preacher and founder of the Christian relief organization Life Outreach International. Later, he became a pastor, and preached at Baptist churches for 12 years before his run for governor.

The political benefit is obvious. Estimates say that between 40 and 60 percent of all voters in the 2008 Iowa caucus were evangelical, and it was thanks to his popularity with that group that Huckabee was propelled to a surprise victory.

Huckabee’s discussions about his faith and his weight loss (he’s lost over 100 pounds) have allowed him to connect to voters on a personal level. 

But Huckabee, who finished second to eventual nominee Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008, has been ambivalent about a second White House bid, frequently citing the cost and toll of a presidential campaign.

At the same time, he’s been encouraged by a swath of polls consistently showing him at or near the top of the 2012 GOP field. 

Unlike some of the other possible White House contenders, Huckabee is very likable. And he doesn’t come across as mean when criticizing President Obama.

A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed Huckabee scoring 25 percent of the Republican vote while Mitt Romney followed with 21 percent. That came on the heels of a Gallup poll also showing Huckabee edging out the former Massachusetts governor.

And Huckabee maintains a lead in key early-primary states. According to a February Public Policy Polling survey, he held a solid 6 percent edge over his closest competitor in South Carolina, and the same firm had him leading in Iowa by 12 percentage points.

HuckPAC’s executive director, Hogan Gidley, said that Huckabee’s strong performance in the polls will make resisting a run difficult, claiming it’s “becoming hard for the governor and his political team to ignore.”

In the wake of his impressive 2008 run, Huckabee has a lucrative career. He hosts separate television and radio shows for Fox News and has written several books and been in demand on the speaking circuit.

“If I run, I walk away from a pretty good income,” he told reporters in Washington last month. “So I don’t want to walk away any sooner than I have to, because frankly, I don’t have a lot of reserve built up.”

If he runs, Huckabee would have to give up his Fox News contract and paid speaking gigs. And he noted the last campaign took a hefty personal financial toll. 

“I pretty much went through everything I ever had as an asset that I thought I might one day live on,” Huckabee, 55, said of the 2008 campaign.

The former governor made those comments as part of his book tour, which took him through the important primary states of Iowa, South Carolina and Florida.

Those stops and his PAC’s fundraising and donations to Republican candidates have kept the 2012 fires burning. 

But if Huckabee is going to win the GOP nomination, he’s got to unite more than the evangelicals who led him to his meteoric rise in Iowa. He has to assure fiscal conservatives that he’s trustworthy on economic issues. 

That is an uphill climb, especially when Huckabee has taken some hits for raising taxes in Arkansas.

And little suggests that sentiment has changed. In fact, Huckabee seems to still chafe from his last experience in the national political spotlight, telling an Iowa radio host that the National Review and Wall Street Journal were among other “snobbish folks who thought I was just a dumb hick from Arkansas who didn’t have a clue.”  

Huckabee has never been the darling of Washington, D.C. In early 2008, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) had more congressional endorsements than Huckabee. 

Yet if the conservative intelligentsia has rendered its verdict on Huckabee, another wing closely associated with economic issues — the Tea Party movement — appears open to considering him. 

When asked whether that disdain filtered down to rank-and-file Tea Party activists, Ryan Rhodes, the leader of the influential Iowa Tea Party, demurred, saying, “The entire Tea Party movement is up for grabs.”

The implication: The 2008 election and its wars are over; in 2012, everyone will get a fresh look.

Huckabee has courted the conservative grassroots movement, saying he was a member of the Tea Party before it existed formally.

And, with polls showing that the economy is one of voters’ biggest concerns, Huckabee has moved to shore up his credentials in that area. He’s made opposition to the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) a cornerstone of his argument against Obama, and a potential dividing line between himself and his biggest rival, Romney, who has defended the controversial law.

If and when Huckabee makes his appeal to voters directly, he could use both TARP and Romney’s healthcare plan in Massachusetts as the basis of a two-pronged attack that might win him support among Tea Party conservatives.

He’s already attacked the Massachusetts plan that Romney signed, tying it to Obama’s controversial healthcare law. 

“If our goal in healthcare reform is better care at lower cost, then we should take a lesson from RomneyCare, which shows that socialized medicine does not work,” he wrote in his latest book, A Simple Government.

Sources close to Huckabee told Fox News this month that he is “literally 50-50” on a run, and Saltsman says Huckabee is well-aware of the risks and rewards.

“His life fundamentally changed … because he ran for president,” Saltsman said.

However, Huckabee — if he runs — won’t sneak up on anyone this time around. He would be a legitimate top-tier candidate, one who would surely take many arrows in the back from other GOP candidates. 

Shane D’Aprile contributed to this article.