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Feb 21, 2015 4:47 AM

Huckabee's challenge: Reaching beyond cultural conservatives

The Associated Press

WOODSTOCK, Ga. (AP) Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee travels the country in a bus adorned with his smiling face and the cover of his latest book. But the ordained Baptist minister and potential 2016 presidential candidate makes it clear that he's interested in more than best-seller lists.

"I think everyone understands where this is headed," Huckabee said after signing books in metro Atlanta. After all, he joked, he didn't recently leave his own Fox News Channel show "because I want to spend Saturdays at home."

No, Mike Huckabee wants to spend his time in the Oval Office.

The man who won the Iowa caucuses and seven other states in 2008 has reassembled key players from his first presidential campaign. They're working at his not-for-profit organization, America Takes Action, poised to transition from exploring a run to a formal campaign. He's spent months courting potential donors and mixing speaking engagements into his book tour. Huckabee, 59, told The Associated Press he expects to decide in April or May.

Along the way, he's fine-tuned his pitch for aggressive foreign policy, economic populism and social-conservative orthodoxy, a mix designed to attract Republican primary voters as well as independents in a general election. But this time, he's carefully ordered those priorities.

"Running for president for me would not be about speaking on cultural issues," Huckabee said. "It would be first and foremost about national security, the absolute warning about Islamic jihadism and how much of a threat that poses to us. The second layer would be some economic sanity, getting back to a place where people are working with jobs that give them an ability to put bread on the table and build a future."

Social issues, Huckabee said, would be a clear third. "I can intelligently articulate the 'why' that I feel strongly about certain things," he said, reaffirming his opposition to abortion rights and same-sex marriage. "But I think those issues aren't the issues you are going to put front and center."

That's an acknowledgment, perhaps, that Huckabee's 2008 campaign didn't reach broadly enough, ultimately giving way to Arizona Sen. John McCain despite winning several Southern and Midwestern states where social conservatives and evangelical voters hold strong sway.

"You just can't get put into a box like Huckabee did in 2008," said Republican pollster Whit Ayres, whose clients include another potential candidate, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

Yet Huckabee maintains that disparate GOP camps often overlap, and he dismisses the analysis that he was the evangelical-only candidate in 2008.

"Our crowds, our voters, our volunteers many of them were evangelicals, but they were largely motivated because they thought that I was speaking to their reality, that I understood who they were, and they didn't really feel like anyone else got that," he said.

At the least, Huckabee's strategy reflects an effort to reframe a second candidacy while maintaining his obvious strengths.

Huckabee describes his latest book "God, Guns, Grits and Gravy" as deliberately short on policy. "It's not my political manifesto," he said of the light-hearted commentary on the differences between what he calls "Bubbleville" (Washington, New York City and Hollywood) and "Bubbaville," which the author-politician says is "everything else."

He chuckles at the generalization. "There are good conservatives in Manhattan and crazy liberals in Alabama," he notes. But Huckabee clearly sees where he appeals: the possibility of a super-primary that includes several Southern states voting a few weeks after South Carolina's primary "a gift from God," because it would concentrate many of his backers into an early voting bloc.

Huckabee's schedule often includes megachurches. In Georgia, he went from a bookstore in heavily Republican Cherokee County to nearby Woodstock First Baptist Church, a frequent stop for Georgia politicians, where he addressed a men's conference broadcast to other churches.

Last fall, he led pastors from early voting states, including South Carolina and Iowa, to Great Britain and Poland, a trip in part to celebrate the roles Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paull II played in toppling communism.

Huckabee recently blasted President Barack Obama, a Christian, as "against what Christians stand for," and chiding him as an "undying, unfailing" supporter of "the Muslim community."

But ask him what he'd do in the presidency and he talks about "protecting our country" and a "responsible domestic economic policy."

Some Republican strategists say it could be a potent package, particularly for a man who spent the years since 2008 connecting with rank-and-file Republicans from his perch at Fox News.

The Rev. Mark Harris, who hosted Huckabee recently at First Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, said the former governor reaches beyond religious conservatives. "He comes across as reasonable," Harris said. "He really is the guy that every American feels like they could sit down at the kitchen table with and talk about the issues they are facing."


Follow Bill Barrow on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/BillBarrowAP


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