Sarah Palin may have met her political match in Mike Huckabee.
Both have been criss-crossing the country on book tours. Both hold degrees in communication. Both hunt and fish. Both use various media
to hit their target audiences.
But while Palin often generates anger, Huckabee takes the Will Rogers road. He has an aw-shucks demeanor, freely cracking jokes, shaking hands and chatting with the media while Palin shuns reporters
Already road-tested by a 2008 White House run, Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor and Baptist minister, may just be the strongest GOP candidate to take on Palin in a primary and President Barack Obama
in a general election.
Huckabee, so far, ranks high in favorability polls.
A Quinnipac poll
on Nov. 22 showed Huckabee in a statistical dead heat with Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.
In a Marist College poll
on Nov. 24, Huckabee and Palin were virtually tied in popularity among Republicans who were not college graduates. But Huckabee pulled ahead significantly -- 18 percent to Palin's 9 percent -- among respondents with college degrees. Huckabee came in second to Romney, who polled on top with 25 percent, among college-educated Republicans.
The high ratings mirror Huckabee's numbers when he was governor. According to the yearly Arkansas Poll, Huckabee only dipped below 50 percent once from 1999 to 2006
. In 2003, he hit a 47 percent approval rating, but the next year had 58 percent.
"He compares favorably to his leading competitors at the moment," says Janine Parry, director of the Arkansas Poll
at the University of Arkansas. "His unfavorable numbers are significantly lower, he's penetrated the mainstream culture without becoming clownish, and he's demonstrated a willingness – even eagerness – to be a practical, truly bipartisan leader. In this environment and in a general election at least, those seem like substantial assets."
Huckabee's career from Southern Baptist minister to politician is one of determination and ambition. The lesson for his opponents: He takes chances and he doesn't give up easily.
From 1989 to 1991, Huckabee served as the youngest-ever elected president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention. While well-known in church circles, Huckabee was a complete unknown in the political arena. But yet he took on a political legend, Sen. Dale Bumpers, for the U.S. Senate in 1992. He lost, but he received 40 percent of the vote.
In 1993, then-GOP State Chairman Asa Hutchinson urged Huckabee to run in a special election for lieutenant governor after Bill Clinton left the governor's office to become president and Lt. Gov.Jim Guy Tucker became governor.
Huckabee ran against attorney Nate Coulter and won by a razor-thin margin. He ran a campaign against the state's dominant Democratic establishment with the slogan, "Unplug the Machine." In November 1994, he was re-elected to a four-year term.
While Huckabee planned another Senate run in 1996 for retiring Democratic Sen. David Pryor's seat, his plans changed when Tucker resigned as governor after he got caught up in the Clinton Whitewater scandal and was convicted of fraud.
Huckabee faced a legislature with 89 Democrats out of 100 legislators in the House and only four Republicans in the 35-seat Senate. Yet, Huckabee found a way to govern.
"Huckabee's great gift as governor was to be pretty ideologically in sync with a state that was conservative on social issues but believed in government," says Jay Barth, a political science professor at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark. "He took moderate, pro-government stances that were in step with the state and even on social issues, he didn't push much."
Barth cautions that Huckabee's moderate stances on children's health care and allowing children of illegal immigrants to attend college may not sit well with tea party voters who align with Palin.
During his 2008 presidential run, Huckabee played well as a candidate. He won the Iowa caucuses and came in second in South Carolina. He stayed in the race although Republicans were urging him to concede the primary to Sen. John McCain.
If he chooses to run again, Huckabee can claim Southern and Baptist credentials in Dixie and play the populist card in Iowa and New Hampshire. In California recently, he signed books at the Reagan Library -- a tip of the hat to "The Great Communicator."
In 2007, Ed Rollins, a Republican consultant and a Reagan national campaign manager, said
, "Governor Huckabee has probably inspired me as much as Ronald Reagan. He had an ability to connect with people and he was a great communicator. I've looked for a long time for another candidate to do that."
Meanwhile, Palin chose to stay in the heartland and South during her book tour and appeared in Huckabee's Arkansas.
Huckabee's weakness during the 2008 campaign was lack of money -- something that Palin certainly knows how to generate. But those who know him say Huckabee is a quick study.
"Huckabee always learns from his defeats, whether they are political defeats or legislative defeats," says Rex Nelson, Huckabee's communications director while in the governor's office. "He lost his first political race to U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers in 1992, adjusted and never lost another race in Arkansas. The 2008 race was one big learning experience for him since it was his first national race. If he seeks the nomination in 2012, he will be an even better candidate."
Still, his Huck PAC has a lot less money than Palin's or Romney's. Huckabee had $194,578.01 on hand at the end of the last reporting period in November, compared to $1.2 million for Sarah PAC or $1 million for Romney's Free and Strong America PAC.
But there are signs Huckabee is starting to shift gears.
In recent weeks, as Palin took her book to the Midwest and South and appeared in Huckabee's Arkansas, Huckabee touted his book and became more vocal on current events, including WikiLeaks
, tax cuts and health care. Earlier this year, Huckabee moved to Florida
, a key presidential primary state, where he is building a $3 million beach house. He aligned himself last year with Sen.-elect Marco Rubio
, a popular tea party candidate.
While Palin heads to Haiti this week and plans a trip to Israel next year, Huckabee has visited Israel more than 10 times as a pastor and a politician. He plans another trip in late January to Israel, similar to a trip he took earlier this year with Christian crooner Pat Boone. He is an ardent supporter of Israel and can talk at length about the problems it faces.
On his PAC's website
, Huckabee is trying to raise $15,000 by the end of the month. He has started to update his Facebook page
and Twitter account
more frequently. Social media is a tool Palin uses with great frequency to get out her message.
More than Romney or Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Barth sees Palin as Huckabee's biggest obstacle in a Republican primary.
"She's a fresher face than Huckabee," Barth says. "She has really courted the tea party a little better than Huckabee. But if she doesn't run, he is a strong, strong candidate for the nomination."