Huckabee makes no effort whatsoever to deny either source of doubt. His love for his newly comfortable lifestyle is evident: “My wife and I grew up dirt poor, and honestly, this is beyond our wildest expectations. We are building our dream house! And look, I know what it’s like to be broke. When I ran before, I cashed in my annuities, my retirement plan, my life insurance. And I’m getting to an age where I can’t keep cashing in everything; I don’t want to be a government ward at the age of 74.”
Nor is Huckabee under any illusions about his prowess as a fund-raiser. “If I do it, I’ve gotta find people who are willing to raise the money for me, and that won’t be easy,” he says. “And I’m not going to run again on a shoestring like I did before.”
You might find it strange that the Republican runner-up from 2008 would find the prospect of financing a 2012 bid so daunting. But Huckabee’s out-front populism last time, including his famous denunciations of the Club for Growth as the “club for greed,” earned him few friends in the realm of big-dollar conservatives. And for all the grassroots energy that the tea party is providing to the GOP right now, the party Establishment still reigns when it comes to the raising of campaign cash—and little that Huckabee has done since 2008 has improved his standing there.
Equally striking is that while Huckabee is too populist for Republican regulars, he may be insufficiently right-wing for the most ginned-up segment of the party. When I ask him, for example, if he has any doubts about where Obama was born, he mournfully shakes his head. “No,” he says. “I think that talk is absurd. We need to be dealing with his policies, not his birthplace.”
Beyond questions of money, this last consideration—the dynamics that will be in play in the Republican nomination contest—is what is weighing most heavily on Huckabee’s mind. “I think I would have the best chance in the general election, because I offer the most distinct but not rancorous contrast against Obama,” he says. “But the Republican primary, I’m trying to figure out where it goes this time. If it’s going to be a search for a problem-solving pragmatist communicating kind of guy, that’s one thing. But if it’s going to be a purity contest of who’s the most gun-loving, the most anti-immigrant, the most pro-life, the most everything, it gets ridiculous.”
This is indeed the central question about the 2012 contest on the Republican side, and at the moment, the answer is still unclear. As everyone and their mother has observed, the GOP field remains utterly unformed, still more a game of guesswork and speculation than a thing to be gauged with certainty or precision. What’s clear, however, is that Huckabee suspects that a hard-core purity contest is more likely to unfold than it has in Republican nomination races of the past—and that if he decides to forgo a run, it will have enormous implications. Having carried the Iowa caucuses last time around, Huckabee would be the odds-on favorite to pull off a repeat. But with Huckabee out, Iowa would be wide open, thus making it more likely that the state could prove a launching pad for the likes of Pawlenty, Barbour, or Newt Gingrich.
In other words, there will not be much weeping among Republicans should Huckabee choose to stay on the sidelines. (In Romneyville, there will be a standing o.) Yet if Republicans are thoughtful—a big if, I am aware—they will at least take a moment to ponder the less than heartening connotations of that decision. What does it say about a national party when its most broadly popular figure cannot locate the mainstream support to justify a run for president? And what does it say about a conservative party when Mike Huckabee—Mike Huckabee!—is considered, and considers himself, too moderate to win? These questions answer themselves.