Huckabee opens '16 bid saying US has lost its moral path

Mike Huckabee made a strong play for social conservatives on Tuesday, launching his presidential bid by declaring that the United States has lost its moral path.

The former Arkansas governor, who finished second in the 2008 fight for the GOP presidential nomination, decried legalized abortion and gay marriage, and accused federal courts of running amok.

“We’ve lost our way morally,” Huckabee told a cheering hometown crowd during his speech in Hope, Ark.

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“We’ve witnessed the slaughter of over 55 million babies in the name of choice, and we’re now threatening the foundation of religious liberty by criminalizing Christianity and demanding we abandon biblical principles in natural marriage,” the former Baptist minister said. 

Ahead of Supreme Court decisions on ObamaCare and gay marriage, Huckabee blasted “black-robed and unelected judges” that he said were usurping power from the legislative branch.

“The Supreme Court is not the supreme being, and they cannot overturn the laws of nature or of nature’s God,” he declared.

Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses in 2008 and is poised to be considered a strong contender again when the state  holds the first nominating contest in the nation in eight months.

And a poll by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling suggested Huckabee could be within striking distance of Democratic front-runner Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillary Clinton slams Trump for spreading 'sexist trash' about Pelosi Gillibrand seizes on abortion debate to jump-start campaign DNC boss says candidates to be involved in debate lottery MORE in the swing state. It showed Clinton with 46 percent of the vote, compared to 44 percent for Huckabee, a margin surpassed by no other GOP candidate and matched only by Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioFrustration boils over with Senate's 'legislative graveyard' Senate passes disaster aid bill after deal with Trump GOP senators work to get Trump on board with new disaster aid package MORE (R-Fla.).

Since dropping out of the 2008 race, Huckabee has spent the last seven years raising his profile in conservative circles through his popular television and radio shows. He left his weekend Fox News slot earlier this year, as he geared up for a presidential run.

Huckabee is currently in sixth place nationally, taking 7.5 percent, according to the RealClearPolitics average of polls, trailing former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush at 15.5 percent, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) at 14.3 percent, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker at 12.3 percent, Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulOvernight Defense: 1,500 troops heading to Mideast to counter Iran | Trump cites Iran tensions to push through Saudi arms sale | Senate confirms Army, Navy chiefs before weeklong recess Trump to send 1,500 troops to Middle East to counter Iran Frustration boils over with Senate's 'legislative graveyard' MORE (Ky.) at 10 percent and Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOn The Money: Conservative blocks disaster relief bill | Trade high on agenda as Trump heads to Japan | Boeing reportedly faces SEC probe over 737 Max | Study finds CEO pay rising twice as fast as worker pay Conservative blocks House passage of disaster relief bill The Hill's Morning Report — After contentious week, Trump heads for Japan MORE (Texas) at 8.8 percent.

Mark Meckler, one of the founders of the influential conservative group Tea Party Patriots, cheered Huckabee’s entrance into the race, saying he would be a leading voice for the party on religious liberty and other issues important to social conservatives.

“An emerging issue for the Tea Party is religious liberty, and the candidacy of Gov. Mike [Huckabee] will help bring that issue to the forefront on the campaign trail,” he said in a statement.

Huckabee on Tuesday took a swipe at two of the contenders who lead him in the field. 

Paul is running for reelection to his Senate seat and the White House simultaneously, and Huckabee argued that a politician running for higher office should “at least have the integrity and decency to resign” from his current job.

Huckabee also knocked Bush for hailing from a “family political dynasty.”

“I grew up blue collar, not blue blood,” Huckabee said.

Still, he faces considerable challenges in winning the GOP nomination next year in what is an increasingly crowded field.

Ben Carson, who has a strong base of grassroots supports, entered the field on Monday. And Cruz, whose early entrance into the field propelled him into the top tier of candidates, has been focused on rallying evangelicals.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal will both be running in the same socially conservative track if they join the race.

“The big question is, can Gov. Huckabee present himself as the candidate of the future that voters are looking for, or is he a candidate of the past in a field filled with mostly younger challengers?” Meckler asked.

Huckabee adviser Bob Wickers sent a memo last week showing the former Arkansas governor has high favorability ratings across the board, citing it as evidence Huckabee holds broader appeal than many give him credit for.

“You cannot have favorables in the high 60s ... without having support from Republicans across the board: blue collar, seniors, and conservatives - not just evangelicals,” Wickers wrote.

Blue-collar and working-class voters have become an important constituency for Republicans in recent elections, and GOP strategists say Huckabee is one of the best in the field at communicating with that bloc.

Huckabee played up his small-town upbringing in his speech, highlighting Hope as the place where he met his wife, became a Christian and learned how to shoot a gun.

“Like a lot of Americans, I grew up in a small town that was far removed from the money, the power and the influence that runs this country,” he said. “The power and money and political influence have left a lot of Americans lagging behind. They sweat through their clothes, grinding out a living but can’t seem to get ahead or stay even.”

Huckabee’s big challenge in 2016 could be fundraising, which doomed him in 2008.

He’s never been a prolific fundraiser, and other GOP contenders like Bush, Walker, Rubio and Cruz are already taking in tens of millions of dollars.

Huckabee sought to turn that into a positive on Tuesday, pleading for small-dollar donations.

“I’m going to let you in on a little secret,” he said. “I never have been and I’m not going to be the favorite candidate for those in the Washington to Wall Street corridor of power. I will be funded and fueled not by the billionaires, but by the working people of America who will find out that $15 and $25 a month contributions can take us from hope to higher ground.”

The former Arkansas governor also has powerful enemies.

The Club for Growth said Tuesday it would launch a six-figure ad buy in two early-voting states attacking Huckabee’s tax record.

His team pushed back, arguing he had to deal with a Statehouse dominated by Democrats when he agreed to raise taxes.

“He was a Republican governor with a Democratic legislature when Arkansas was as blue as ever,” Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) said in introducing Huckabee.

“He led our state. ... He worked in a bipartisan manner to lower our taxes and balance our budget for 10 years,” Hutchison continued. “He did that by reaching out to the other side and saying, ‘Join me in this effort.’ ”

 

— Updated at 7:50 p.m.