At least that was the feeling the other day at the Central Station Market Place, a labyrinthine flea market and antique center in a rough-around-the-edges shopping center here in the resort town where Bill Clinton went to high school.
"I can understand how that can happen," said Randy Featherston, of the weight gain. "Politics will do that to you." In any event, Featherston said, leaning on the counter of hisjewelry, knickknacks and used book concession, "I think he might have a pretty good chance if he runs."
Mike Jones, seated behind his counter in his area, specializing in old, rusted farm implements and tools, agrees on both counts. "It's very hard to keep that weight off."
Jones said he had met Huckabee a number of times, and once gave the governor a pocket knife. A Democrat who voted for Obama in 2008, he says he probably will again, even if Huckabee is the Republican nominee. Still, Jones thinks that Huckabee's chances are good to get the nomination and to be elected.
"Mike Huckabee is very shrewd," said Jones. "He's a very smart man. I don't agree with all his religious views, but he's a very smart man – even if he is a Republican."
Huckabee followed his 2005 diet book with a string of more serious political and inspirational books, before jumping into the crowded 2008 GOP primary field. During the debates, he distinguished himself with a show of compassion for the recession's victims, and set jaws dropping along the row of candidates when he suggested a massive public works program – widening Interstate 95
along the East Coast. He was also one of three hopefuls who raised their hands when moderator Chris Matthews asked who among them did not believe in evolution
By the national convention, Huckabee finished with the second highest delegate total, and third in popular votes and state primaries won. His amiable, soothing, almost pastoral delivery of hard-edged conservative positions – plus his amateur rock band
– led to the weekend slot with Fox News and a weekday, syndicated radio show commentary.
In a Public Policy Polling survey
conducted in mid-November, Huckabee came within three points of Obama in a potential match-up, 48-45. A Nov. 22 Quinnipiac survey
, conducted at about the same time showed, Huckabee trailing the President by a statistically insignificant margin of 46-44. Still, Huckabee faces some potential hurdles in what is expected to be an even more crowded 2012 Republican primary, especially if the field includes Sarah Palin. Huckabee and the former Alaskan governor would be contesting the same ideological turf, which may explain why Huckabee recently defended Michelle Obama
against a snarky attack by Palin
on her reality show, in which he supported the First Lady's campaign to find healthy alternatives to rich desserts.
There appear to be some geographic fissures in Huckabee and Palin's populist base. Palin draws her largest and most enthusiastic crowds in the midwestern heartland. But Huckabee seems to be preferred in the Sunbelt suburbs, particularly among college-educated, evangelical men in the managerial sector,
This is especially true here in Arkansas, where the first thing out of the mouth of anyone asked about Huckabee – like the flea market concessionaires – is how much more qualified the hometown boy is than Palin. And they can be harsh.
"I'd rather see him in there than Palin," says Featherston. "He's got more sense about him."
"Sarah Palin doesn't have a chance," says Jones. "She doesn't have the ability to be President – that's for sure.... She doesn't have the brains for it."
Huckabee was nowhere to be seen in person among the winter gray and brown hills of central Arkansas over the holidays, although he has been making the media rounds (including a return appearance on "The Daily Show,"
where he earned some points with Stewart for supporting the 9/11 first responders bill in the Senate) promoting his latest book, a children's story about Christmas. Without any hard feelings, his shivering countrymen say he might be inspecting his new beachfront home site in Florida, the electoral vote-rich swing state (with a showy, delegate-rich primary and no income tax-unlike Arkansas) where I live.
While he's keeping a home in North Little Rock, he's building a $2.8, million, 4,000-square-foot- house in Blue Mountain Beach, a Panhandle resort community near Destin, Fla., according to the Arkansas Times
. Recently, the former governor has been renting digs in Miramar Beach, the paper reported. If he gets homesick in the sunshine over the holiday – he says he still considers himself a Razorback – he could always go to the cineplex to catch True Grit
, which is partly set in Arkansas.
Strange political contrasts have emerged from this state of three million. Arkansas produced one of the nation's lowest demagogues – Democratic Gov. Orval Faubus – and one of its most intellectual U.S. Senators – William Fulbright. It gave birth to Wal-Mart, an avatar and behemoth of modern capitalism; and ACORN, the militant, now-defunct community action organization.
The last time an Arkansas governor was nominated for President was in 1992, when Bill Clinton began what is today considered a fairly successful eight-year run. Ironically, both men are originally from the small town of Hope, Ark. (Huckabee's autobiography is titled From Hope to Higher Ground) The men represent two sides of the state's Janus-like schizoid personality: the Democrat, a Saturday night rascal; the Republican a pious, Sunday morning preacher.
Despite an early stumble, Huckabee has lived a charmed political life. In 1993, the year after he failed in an attempt to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers, he squeaked by Bill Clinton's former campaign manager to become the state's second Republican lieutenant governor since Reconstruction. That office became vacant when Lt. Gov. Jim Guy Tucker succeeded to the post when Clinton was elected President. In the wake of Tucker's subsequent fraud conviction, Huckabee withdrew from his race to succeed retiring U.S. Sen. David Pryor and became the state's accidental governor. Elected to two full terms, he was folksy and popular, known for playing bass in a rock and roll band and famously "pardoning" Rolling Stone Keith Richards
for a 1975 reckless driving ticket.
On the downside, Huckabee has a number of "Willie Hortons" in his background from his time as governor. Several prison inmates who were paroled or whose sentences were commuted went on to commit heinous crimes. And yet, when GOP primary opponents attempted to raise the issue in 2008, the charges failed to gain any traction.
So if Huckabee does return to fighting trim and makes the race in 2012, he'll have plenty of support from fans like Billy Herrell, proprietor of the famed "Billy's House of Guitars & Musical Museum" in Glenwood, Arkansas, where Huckabee liked to hang out and jam when he was governor. Although they never talked politics in the store, Herrell became a fan of the governor.
"He's one of the most common-sense leaders we could possibly have," says the fourth generation musician, standing amidst the glorious clutter of old guitars, autographed pictures, vintage ventriloquist dummies, concert posters, reel-to-reel tape recorders, Elvis clocks with swiveling legs and an old time Coke machine that the company still stocks with the classic, small glass bottles.
"He's a guy that's really trying – not just blowing smoke," says Herrell. "I think he's the best chance we've got."