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From Pulpit To Politics, Huckabee Heeds The Call

Mike Huckabee, then a Baptist minister and Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, speaks at a news conference in Little Rock, Ark., in 1992 — the year then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton was elected president. Huckabee lost that race, but the next year, won a special election to become lieutenant governor.
Danny Johnston
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AP
Mike Huckabee, then a Baptist minister and Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, speaks at a news conference in Little Rock, Ark., in 1992 — the year then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton was elected president. Huckabee lost that race, but the next year, won a special election to become lieutenant governor.

There are at least a dozen Republicans considering a run for the White House in 2012. NPR is profiling some of them to find out what first sparked their interest in politics.

But for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, there may have been no spark. Though he spent years as a Southern Baptist minister, he always considered politics his calling.

In his autobiography, From Hope to Higher Ground, he writes that as a teenager he knew he would have a career in broadcasting and eventually run for public office. And that career in broadcasting began early, with part-time jobs at local radio stations in high school and college.

"There was always ... a star quality about Mike Huckabee," says Rex Nelson, who worked alongside him at an Arkadelphia radio station when Nelson was in high school and Huckabee was in college. Nelson, as a reporter, later covered him, and then became Gov. Huckabee's communications director.

But that first impression stuck.

"He was very ambitious," recalls Nelson. "You knew he was going to be very successful at something, whether it was broadcasting or whether it was public relations or whether it was politics."

From Pastor To Politician

In Arkansas, young men interested in politics frequently join Boys State, a political training ground for teenagers. That's what Bill Clinton did — and a few years later, so did Huckabee. That's where he met another kid named Jonathan Barnett.

He always felt that we really needed people with strong morals and strong Christian background to be leaders in our country.

Barnett was so impressed, he wanted to be Huckabee's campaign manager some day. "I told Mike that I was going to run him for public office someday and get him elected. I just thought he should be in public service."

Years later, Barnett did chair Huckabee's first three campaigns. But before that, Huckabee became a full-time pastor. In his autobiography, he calls it a "detour" that led him down a road he wasn't planning to travel.

His first church was a small one in Pine Bluff, then he moved to a larger congregation in Texarkana. In both towns, he started church-based TV stations.

Hal Bass, dean of social sciences at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkansas, says they were just local stations, "but Arkansas is a small state, and [Huckabee] was well-known and well-liked."

That set up Huckabee's first run for office: president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention.

Huckabee, after taking the oath of office at the state Capitol in Little Rock in 1996. He became governor after the resignation of Jim Guy Tucker in the wake of Tucker's Whitewater convictions.
Spencer Tirey / AP
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AP
Huckabee, after taking the oath of office at the state Capitol in Little Rock in 1996. He became governor after the resignation of Jim Guy Tucker in the wake of Tucker's Whitewater convictions.

It was 1989. Bass was parliamentarian for the organization then, and he says that Huckabee "emerged as the choice of ... the moderate faction in Arkansas Baptist politics in that day and age." Not that Huckabee was seen as a moderate — but his personal charm made him a compromise candidate in a fierce battle between moderate and conservative Southern Baptists for dominance in the church.

Huckabee easily won the election and "became very much a household name," says Bass.

But Huckabee also became frustrated with his role as a pastor. He's written that he felt more like the captain of the Love Boat than a serious spiritual leader. At the same time, it was difficult to risk his secure and comfortable life in the ministry to gamble on seeking political office.

Sally Brown was Huckabee's administrative assistant at Beech Street First Baptist Church in Texarkana, and she says he prayed about possibly going into politics. "He always felt," she says, "that we really needed people with strong morals and strong Christian background to be leaders in our country."

An Opportunity

In 1992, in his first race for public office, Huckabee took on a giant: popular incumbent U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers. Huckabee lost, big time.

But that election also saw Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton elected to the White House. That meant that the lieutenant governor moved up to the governor's office, and there had to be a special election to find a new lieutenant governor.

Rex Nelson says Huckabee was in a perfect position to win that race "because he had just run a statewide campaign [and] already had a full organization in each of the state's 75 counties in place."

So at the age of 37, Huckabee was elected Arkansas' lieutenant governor. He was twice elected governor after that. Then, in 2008, he stunned nearly everyone with his victory in the Iowa caucuses. That was largely due to support from Christian conservatives. That support is also partly responsible for his current standing near the top of the Republican presidential polls.

Huckabee hasn't announced yet if he'll run for president again. And he now faces the same dilemma that he faced in 1992, when he had to decide whether it was worth risking his comfortable life to run for public office.

And it would be a risk, says Nelson. "If he runs for president again, obviously, the TV show goes away overnight, daily radio commentaries go away overnight, the paid speeches go away overnight" — while for the first time in his life, Huckabee's making really good money and having fun.

That's a tough combination to walk away from. Huckabee says he'll announce his decision this summer.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ina Jaffe is a veteran NPR correspondent covering the aging of America. Her stories on Morning Edition and All Things Considered have focused on older adults' involvement in politics and elections, dating and divorce, work and retirement, fashion and sports, as well as issues affecting long term care and end of life choices. In 2015, she was named one of the nation's top "Influencers in Aging" by PBS publication Next Avenue, which wrote "Jaffe has reinvented reporting on aging."
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