Mike Huckabee rubs his throat and knows there's trouble.
It's a recent Friday morning -- his birthday, no less -- and the presidential candidate is ill, shuffling down the carpeted hallways of an Indianapolis hotel.
On his way to meet an influential Indiana politician, Huckabee coughs and turns a corner, past hotel maids who pay him no notice. As he reaches the elevator, a group of passing twentysomethings ignores the man who just finished second at the Republican Party of Iowa Straw Poll.
Third floor, please.
The straw poll showing surprised nearly everyone, including the campaign, which had privately predicted a fourth-place finish -- a result that probably would have driven him from the race. Instead, Team Huckabee treated second place like a win, and the long-shot former governor of Arkansas lived to campaign another day.
With the Iowa "victory" came the free media attention, which is exactly what Huckabee needed: Of all the skills this governor-rocker-preacher possesses, none is as notable as his ability to talk with intelligence, clarity and humor, often in the same sentence.
"A Republican in my state feels about as out of place as Michael Vick at the Westminster Dog Show," Huckabee said recently in his typical folksy, simile-injected style.
"We have a Congress that spends money like John Edwards at a beauty shop."
Have tongue, will travel. A healthy Huckabee delivers such lines anywhere, any time. Consider: Before Indy he had campaigned the last five days in New Hampshire, South Carolina, North Carolina, back to South Carolina and across to Missouri, before arriving in Indiana.
Thus, Huckabee is exhausted in Indianapolis; and like any good pastor, he knows the signs of a throat in jeopardy, a voice in retreat.
"Once you feel the adenoids swelling, you've got to take action," he says softly.
Mike Huckabee has been professionally losing his voice since 1969, when at 14, he ruled the Hope, Ark., airwaves as a disc jockey for KXAR, "1490 on your AM dial."
There at the town's lone local radio station Huckabee spun country music 45s, read the farm report and broadcast his thoughts on sports, church, high school -- anything to fill the airtime.
It was the first of many jobs where Huckabee was the man in charge -- the singular voice behind the microphone. In high school, he led his classmates as student council president. In Baptist churches, he led his congregations as pastor. Even in politics, he's only held executive positions -- never once has he sat on a city council or in a state legislature.
Huckabee's critics point to this record and see why they consider him an affable control freak, unable to trust anyone but himself. Huckabee counters that he simply believes in his convictions and God above.
"I'm not a consultant-driven candidate," he said recently in his spartan Little Rock headquarters.
Later, when asked to name a single senior adviser who helps form his policies, Huckabee glanced over his shoulder and deadpanned back with a face that said, "You're looking at him."
He then belly-laughed with ease.
A place called Hope
Michael Dale Huckabee is, of course, not the first charismatic candidate to hail from Hope -- Bill Clinton was born there, too, but he and his family left in 1954, a year before Huckabee entered the world.
By all accounts, the Huckabees' small brick bungalow on 2nd Street housed a churchgoing, working-class family: Dorsey, his dad, fought fires with the department two blocks down the road and repaired automobile generators in a workshop behind the house the family rented. Huckabee's mother, Mae, worked as an office assistant at the local gas company.
Mike -- always Mike -- was known in high school as the gregarious Beatles-loving bass player of the Bois d'Arc Boogie Band, named after a popular fishing spot just outside town. The band made Huckabee cool, in a buttoned-up "I Want To Hold Your Hand" kind of way, which was helpful considering the un-athletic teen never would have found on-field glory with the Bobcat football team.
Huckabee's feet fall as flat as the floor.
In June 1971, at age 15, Huckabee announced God had called him to preach. His first sermon, at the family's spiritual home of Garrett Memorial Baptist Church, was titled "Watering Down the Blood of Christ," and the teenager illustrated it by pouring water into a pitcher of grape juice as he spoke.
"He was a good speaker. He spoke plain so you could understand him," said Brenda Hart, who was present that evening. "Still, when he surrendered to preach I was just shocked, because even at that age I knew he was headed to politics."
After high school Huckabee became the first man in his family to attend college, which he did at Ouachita Baptist University in nearby Arkadelphia. Following his freshman year, Huckabee, 18, married 18-year-old Janet McCain of Hope, whose adventurous spirit contrasted with his measured and methodical style. Just over a year into their marriage, doctors discovered a cluster of cancerous tumors near Janet's spinal cord. Experts told them she needed surgery that would probably leave her unable to walk or ever have children.
"He should've left me," Janet reflected recently.
Instead, Huckabee cared for his wife after her surgery and during the months she lay in traction. When her treatment took her to Little Rock, Huckabee drove her the 140 miles there and back, for weeks, while he continued to take classes, work at a local radio station and preach at an area church.
"He was just a rock. He doesn't panic," said Janet, now the cancer-free, able-bodied mother of their three adult children.
The next year, 1975, Huckabee graduated from Ouachita, magna cum laude, only three years after leaving Hope.
He was on his way.
For the next 16 years, Huckabee rose within the ministry. He worked for a popular televangelist, fostered two healthy churches and created two religious cable TV stations. From 1989 to 1991 he presided over the 490,000-member Arkansas Baptist Convention, where he managed to unite dueling mainstream and fundamentalist factions.
About the only thing left for him to accomplish was what almost everyone thought he'd do from the beginning: run for public office.
So he did.
The Senate race
At 37, Huckabee ran as a Republican for a U.S. Senate seat held by a popular Democrat in a heavily Democratic state. Huckabee had little money, minor name recognition and a relatively thin record: While the incumbent was a former Arkansas governor, Huckabee only had governmental experience if you counted student council.
Few then were surprised when Huckabee was defeated, although he did manage to create a network of state contacts, which he continued to cultivate after his loss.
"We did a statewide Mike Huckabee campaign crusade," said Curtis Coleman, his longtime friend who ran that Senate campaign. "We recruited one guy and asked him to recruit 10 more people and then they each recruited 10 more and so on."
The old "church phone tree" strategy paid off several months later when Huckabee won a special election race for the lieutenant governorship. Huckabee ended up with 51 percent of the vote, which was hardly a mandate but a victory nonetheless.
He'd take it.
Road to the mansion
Huckabee likes to share a story about the first time he arrived at the Arkansas Capitol in 1993 and found one of his new office doors nailed shut. It's a tale told to highlight how much some Democrats mistreated him as the first Republican elected to statewide office since 1980.
"I had those yellow dogs on my tail all the time," Huckabee wrote in "Character Makes a Difference," one of five books he's authored. "I often got on an elevator at the Capitol and people got out; they refused to ride with me."
Was that true? Outside observers say some partisan slights probably occurred, although for every such anecdote, there is a Democratic version in which Huckabee is the one who refused to work across party lines. Such stories only increased in 1996 when Democratic Gov. Jim Guy Tucker resigned, making Huckabee Arkansas' third Republican chief executive since Reconstruction.
While in the governor's office, Huckabee drew the same praise he had his whole life: People saw him as a strong leader with the gift of eloquence. His detractors stood in familiar territory, too: They labeled him too authoritative, too thin-skinned and not enough of a listener.
"I was extremely frustrated because all he seemed to want to do is tell fishing stories and jokes," said Jan Judy, a former Democratic state legislator.
Bill Gwatney, chairman of the Democratic Party of Arkansas, said the silver-tongued Huckabee is more suited for Toastmasters than the chief executive's office.
"I don't think he has the temperament to be president because he doesn't take criticism well," said Gwatney, who is also a state senator.
During the 11 years Huckabee was governor -- he was re-elected twice and term-limited out of office -- Huckabee championed arts and music education, environmental conservation and a program that provides health insurance to 70,000 Arkansas children. He also worked hard to ban gay Arkansans from being foster parents and spent great amounts of time and effort creating a "covenant marriage" option in Arkansas, which makes divorce harder to obtain. He is unequivocally anti-abortion, and he proudly proclaims he was the first governor to possess a concealed weapon permit. (Janet Huckabee has one too.)
Such examples and others show just how hard it is to put this candidate in a partisan box. He is liberal, moderate and conservative.
Politically speaking, Mike Huckabee answers to one man: Mike Huckabee.
The journey ahead
This buffet-style political ideology succeeded in getting him re-elected in Arkansas but it is one of his challenges in running for the Republican nomination, said Jay Barth, an associate professor of politics at Arkansas' Hendrix College.
"Arkansas is an interesting Southern state in that it is extremely conservative on social values, but on the economic side of things Arkansas is pretty progressive with a populist tradition," said Barth, a Democrat.
"So I think there is an ideological component as to why Huckabee was able to succeed in Arkansas and is having trouble nationally with folks like the Club for Growth."
The Washington-based Club attacked Huckabee earlier this summer, saying the tax increases and public works projects that occurred while he was governor mean he's not conservative enough with public money. Huckabee counters that the "Club for Greed," as he calls it, distorts his record and is only doing the dirty work of another candidate he refuses to name.
As to other campaign issues, Huckabee strongly supports the war in Iraq, and uses the "we broke it, we bought it" philosophy to explain why the U.S. cannot withdrawal from a conflict he sees as part of the war on terror.
He argues against "employer-based" health care and the IRS, advocating instead for "consumer-based" health care and the FairTax, a 23 percent national sales tax on new goods used for personal consumption. Both steps, he says, would put more money in Americans' pockets.
Money -- or fundraising to be precise -- raises another campaign issue for Huckabee. "I'm constantly under pressure: 'You've got to push harder to get the money.' And I probably in many ways should," Huckabee said after a fundraiser in Amarillo, Texas, where he asked the crowd only once to contribute to his campaign.
"The truth is I don't want people to give me money and then resent it."
Statements such as these speak to a deeper issue for Huckabee, who's great at rallying the troops but bad at signing them up. It's the same trait that made him a successful preacher but probably would've doomed him as a missionary.
"He's tremendous to a full room, but his charisma is not such that it will fill it," said Bill Vickery, an Arkansas-based GOP consultant. "Pragmatists don't have that ability to draw folks in."
Running on faith
Huckabee begins most mornings on the campaign trail with at least a 4-mile jog, something he's worked up to after a doctor diagnosed him in 2003 with Type II diabetes. Following that diagnosis, Huckabee lost 110 pounds in about a year, and he created the Healthy Arkansas initiative, a collection of programs to help Arkansans live longer. He also took up marathon running -- a solitary pursuit that fits well with his penchant for self-motivation and a preference to compete against himself. (His best time of the four he has run is a solid 4:27:17.)
Some folks back home still consider Huckabee's "get fit" kick to be little more than empty political calories: His best-selling weight loss book, "Quit Digging Your Grave with a Knife and Fork," landed the governor platefuls of national media attention but did little to improve the state's obesity statistics. Many also believe the positive press gained from this book convinced Huckabee he has a shot to become president, despite having no major political or financial benefactor. It's a story line the candidate denies, as do his wife and children, who claim they convinced him to run.
Sarah, 26, who is both Huckabee's daughter and campaign field director, said she urged her father to run because he exhibits the fortitude a president needs.
"He is the go-to for everybody in our family," said Sarah.
The morning Huckabee was in Indianapolis, he didn't complete his 4-mile run -- the candidate's aching body and fatigue proved too formidable. He did, however, make it to his meeting with Brian C. Bosma, Republican leader of the Indiana House of Representatives.
"Tell me about your campaign," Bosma said, as he leaned back in his chair and waited.
Huckabee took a deep breath and spoke, but he stuttered and fumbled what should have been an easy answer -- he was just too sick to shine. Missing was his typical charm. Gone was that familiar Jim Nabors grin.
At this moment it became clear just how important, and sincere, Huckabee's usual magnetism is. Without it, he proves unable to engage those around him. He becomes an announcer without listeners, a pastor without a flock -- a politician who cannot politic.
The Indianapolis meeting ended, not surprisingly, without Bosma endorsing Huckabee. Soon after, the candidate left the hotel and headed to the airport, but not before picking up a prescription for his throat a doctor had called in to an area pharmacy.
Huckabee ended the day at a conference in Biloxi, Miss., where, before heading to bed, he spoke to a news program in Los Angeles, via satellite. It was a long day for the candidate who woke up just before 5 a.m., but Huckabee looked refreshed and healthy, and he stared into the camera with the confidence of a man who has spent his lifetime talking with ease.
The medicine had obviously worked. Huckabee was back.
Have tongue, will travel.
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