Huckabee inching closer to 2016 run
© Greg Nash

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) is taking the necessary steps to run for president again in 2016, vowing he wouldn't make the same mistakes he made last time, if he pulls the trigger.

The Republican told a group of reporters on Monday over coffee at a restaurant just outside of D.C. that he learned from his failed 2008 bid that he can’t take money and fundraising for granted, even though he is leading in GOP early primary state polls. 

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Huckabee says he will make a decision early next year about another presidential run but noted he’s in a “different place than I was eight years ago,” due to a lucrative career as a Fox News and radio show host.

That career has also opened the door to meetings with donors he said he wouldn’t have gotten in 2008. Then, they’d say, “Who are you? How do you spell your name?”

In fact, Huckabee said he’s in talks with donors, and, “with a lot of people, it’s [going] pretty good.” He pointed to the nonprofit, America Takes Action, which he recently set up that, he says, has already raised seven figures. 

“Not a single person I’ve asked [to contribute to the group] has said no,” he told reporters.

A new CNN/ORC poll out Monday gave Huckabee 21 percent support among GOP voters in Iowa — almost twice as much as the next-strongest contender, Rep. Paul RyanPaul RyanSenate defeats ObamaCare repeal measure McCain kills GOP's 'skinny' ObamaCare repeal plan Senate heading for late night ahead of ObamaCare repeal showdown MORE (R-Wis.), with 12 percent support — and his supporters argue a Huckabee presidential candidacy is looking more viable than it has in the past.

While he's often left off of nationwide polls — an indication of how serious he is taken at this point in the cycle — when he is included, he typically posts double-digit support and comes in second or third.

Some, however, doubt Huckabee will ultimately run after passing in 2012. They think he is too interested in his own booming media career to take a time out.

As Democrats take a hit on foreign policy and international unrest again seizes the attention of the nation, Huckabee is also boning up on international issues. He recently visited Israel for the third time this year and is in “regular contact with a host of people both in the military as well as the intelligence community” on foreign policy issues. 

He refused to take any clear shots at any of his potential GOP or Democratic rivals in 2016 but hinted at some of his potential attack lines if he does run.

Huckabee even offered praise for Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonSessions says he doesn't regret recusing himself from Russia probe Judiciary Committee Republicans want a second special counsel: report Fusion GPS: White House trying to smear us on Russia MORE, the presumptive Democratic nominee, if she does run. He called the former secretary of State and one-time first lady of Arkansas “smart [and] tough,” warning “don't ever underestimate her. In many ways, she's a policy genius.”

But he added, “I don't know if she has that same affable charm that her husband does. But then, who does?" He said he wasn’t “absolutely convinced that she jumps in the water."

Huckabee suggested any candidate running for higher office should have to resign from their current office — an implicit hit on Sens. Rand PaulRand PaulOvernight Defense: Military won't lift transgender ban until Trump sends directions | House passes national security spending | Russian sanctions bill heads to Trump Overnight Cybersecurity: Senate sends Russia sanctions bill to Trump | Senators unveil email privacy bill | Russia tried to spy on Macron with Facebook Senate sends Russia sanctions bill to Trump's desk MORE (R-Ky.) and Marco RubioMarco RubioMexican politicians have a new piñata: Donald Trump Bush ethics lawyer: Congress must tell Trump not to fire Mueller The private alternative to the National Flood Insurance Program  MORE (R-Fla.), who are both contemplating a run for reelection and president.

And though he said he “likes” Paul, he criticized his brand of laissez-faire libertarian foreign policy. 

“While I understand that [isolationism], and while frankly, I would love for us to be able to have the luxury, the question is, is America going to be able to be a leader? And what responsibility comes with being a world power?” he said.

Huckabee said America doesn’t have the “luxury” of staying out of international conflicts, and it has “less now than before because the threat of jihadism is global.” The GOP, he argued, needs to get its message out better on foreign policy.

“We have not done a good job of educating to younger Americans that, like it or not, guys, you can’t isolate yourselves,” he said. 

Instead of hitting his potential opponents, Huckabee hammered President Obama, questioning whether the president reads intelligence briefings, criticizing his administration for acting as though there is “some moral equivalency between Hamas and Israel” and knocking Obama for “telegraphing too many things we won’t do.”

“I think what you do is, you create a clear understanding that you are not going to leave anything off the table,” he said. 

But Huckabee implicitly acknowledged he might not be the one on the debate stage with the deepest or broadest foreign policy background, a critique he also had to fight off in 2008.

He argued that the chief executive’s role isn’t “necessarily the encyclopedia for naming all the names of the foreign leaders and being able to find the capitals on the map, as much as it is to process information.”

One thing he feels does make him uniquely qualified for the office, he said, is his 11 years as governor of Arkansas, where he said worked with a heavily Democratic legislature to get things done.

“I know how to govern,” he said. “It’s about developing relationships, building camaraderie, building trust,” Huckabee said. “I don’t think you’ll find a Republican who got 49 percent of the African-American vote, as I did, in my reelection as governor. That had high Hispanic support. Those are things I think could be valuable to the party.”

But challenges still remain. The former minister admitted he’s “a little bit” concerned about being pigeonholed as the “[Southern] Baptist” candidate, and it’s “inexplicable” to him that much of the conversation surrounding his past campaigns has centered around his time in the pulpit, which he argues is an asset.

“I mean, I served in elected office longer than I served in the church. Not that I thought that ever disqualified me anyway. I think it helped me understand human nature a whole lot better in a way,” he said.

“I would love to talk about what we’re for, to bring a sense of hope and optimism to people, as opposed to just tell ‘em how bad everything is,” he said.

 It’s the only way to win, he said.

“I don’t think you can make people fearful enough and mad enough to get elected.”