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From Mike Huckabee to Sarah Palin, the Republicans Offer Indecision 2012

4 years ago
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Like prominent Republicans from, well, Mississippi (Gov. Haley Barbour) to Alaska (c'mon, you can do it), Mike Huckabee admits that he mulls every day whether he should enter the wide-open GOP presidential contest.

But unlike other Republican White House dreamers -- with the conspicuous exception of the indefatigable Mitt Romney -- Huckabee knows the adrenaline rush and the arduous pressures of a presidential race from his quest for the 2008 GOP nomination. "If you've jumped out of an airplane," Huckabee told Washington political reporters Wednesday afternoon, "you have a whole lot better understanding of what you're going to do the next time you do it because you've done it."

Not since New York Gov. Mario Cuomo (aka "Hamlet on the Hudson") bowed out of the 1992 Democratic presidential race with a plane waiting on the tarmac to fly him to New Hampshire has a political party been so afflicted with "to be or not to be" indecision. In a rare burst of clarity, South Dakota Sen. John Thune, after "lots of prayer," announced Tuesday that he would remain on Capitol Hill. But whether it is deciphering Sarah Palin's intentions or guessing what is going on with Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, political reporting on the potential Republican 2012 field has morphed into a branch of soothsaying.

At the Wednesday afternoon coffee organized by the Christian Science Monitor, Huckabee conveyed the impression (at least to me) that he is poised to enter the GOP fray if the politics allow him to delay until summer. "The idea that somebody would crank up a campaign as early as possible -- having been through it -- doesn't make sense," the former Arkansas governor said. With his weekend show on Fox News, his paid speeches, his new book ("A Simple Government") and, yes, hosting an early June cruise to Alaska, Huckabee, who hails from the populist wing of the Republican Party, admits, "In the last few years, I certainly have done better than I ever have in my life."

Huckabee stressed that, after cashing in his life insurance and annuities to seek the presidency in 2008, "One thing I committed to myself, my wife and God was that, if I do this, I am going to be in a position where I'm not totally destitute at the end of it." But Huckabee, who clearly is devouring poll numbers even more intensely than he checks the bestseller lists, appears to believe that he has enough name recognition and enough support to mount a credible late entry.

"I'm in a very different position that I was four years ago," he said. "Obviously, I'm better known. I'm polling at the top of virtually every national poll. . . . It doesn't mean that I can wait indefinitely. It certainly means that I would be smart . . . to wait for the field to develop."

The decision to run for president -- the ultimate triumph of narcissism and ambition over rational behavior -- is one of the least understood aspects of presidential politics. Few would-be presidents are as blunt as Jimmy Carter was in his campaign autobiography, "Why Not the Best?" Recalling how he was courted by White House contenders in both parties when he was governor of Georgia, Carter wrote, "I lost my feeling of awe about presidents." A 1970s Democrat, who fell far short on his way to the White House, argued that the mental trick was believing that you were more qualified than your rivals for the nomination -- and not that you were superior to 250 million Americans.

Many candidates have run for president before they were politically ready, whether it was Bob Dole in 1980, Al Gore and Joe Biden in 1988 (actually, he dropped out in 1987) and, yes, Barack Obama in 2008. "For up-and-comers, there is really nothing to be lost in running," said Elaine Kamarck, a former adviser to Al Gore who now teaches at Harvard's Kennedy School. "Bill Clinton -- and I was privy to conversations about this -- never expected to win the nomination in 1992. He thought Mario Cuomo would be the nominee who would lose to George H.W. Bush in November. By running, Clinton was positioning himself for 1996." Former Minnesota GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who is 50, fits this up-and-coming probable candidate profile. Little known nationally, but respected by political insiders, Pawlenty should also be thinking about 2016 as he gets ready for the ordeal of visiting all 99 counties of Iowa.

Presidential candidates not only have to believe in their almost super-human abilities and their potential to bend the national destiny in their bare hands, but they also have to see political openings where often, in reality, none exist. Larry Rasky, who advised Biden on both his 1987 and his under-funded 2008 presidential campaign, said shrewdly, "Some of these people who run know that they will have the money. Some of these people think they will have the money. And some of these people convince themselves that they will somehow have the money."

Not all presidential candidates face a wrenching decision. "Once Ronald Reagan got into politics, it seemed like the only natural end of his career was the presidency," said Republican strategist Rich Galen, who worked for Fred Thompson's failed 2008 campaign. "More recently, 'W' was like Reagan. Once he got bit by the running-for-office bug, there was no stopping him." Sitting vice presidents (unless they are counted out for health reasons like Dick Cheney) automatically run for president at the end of eight years as George H.W. Bush did in 1988 and Al Gore in 2000.

For my book on the 2004 Democratic race, "One-Car Caravan," I interviewed all the presidential contenders about their decisions to throw their hats into the ring (or a yarmulke in Joe Lieberman's case). There was something naively touching about former Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who dropped out before the Iowa caucuses, telling his wife, Adele, as they drove by the White House, "Maybe we'll be in that house over there in a couple of years." And Howard Dean -- long before he became the tribune of the anti-Iraq protest vote -- decided to run for president because the alternative was serving on corporate boards "and swearing at The New York Times every morning and saying how outrageous it was."

It has been nearly 60 years since both Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson were drafted for the 1952 presidential nominations. These days, even fake drafts (like the one that Donald Trump apparently is trying to gin up) strain credulity. In truth, the only way to run for president is to nominate yourself as a candidate. That is why the first primary takes place in the minds and hearts of the men and women who fantasize about being the 2012 Republican nominee.

Follow Walter Shapiro on Twitter (lucky you).

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