HOPE, Ark. — Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee on Tuesday entered his second presidential contest with a familiar message, focusing on his humble roots and traditional values.
But where he was the scrappy underdog with the fresh face in 2008, the former Baptist preacher faces a different set of challenges this time around. He joins a crowded field of GOP contenders, including some with similar appeal to evangelicals.
What he is counting on is a message aimed at attracting working-class traditionalists wary of the influence of big money in politics. He is also vowing to preserve Social Security and other bedrock assistance programs.
“I don’t come from a family dynasty but a working family,” Huckabee told a cheering, overflow crowd of more than 2,000 at a community college here, in a clear dig at likely GOP candidate Jeb Bush. “I grew up blue-collar, not blue-blood.”
It’s not clear how far such a message can take him at a time when many Republicans are seeking to move beyond divisive social issues and reach out to a fast-changing electorate. After winning the Iowa caucuses in 2008, Huckabee struggled to expand his reach beyond evangelicals before running out of money.
His biggest challenge in 2016 will be trying to break through in a GOP field likely to include a dozen or more credible, well-financed contenders. Among them are some young, fresh faces, including Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Rand Paul (Ky.).
Huckabee’s campaign announcement here, by contrast, had a sepia tone; the warm-up act was singer Tony Orlando, performing his 1973 hit “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree.”
Huckabee, 59, had announced nearly a year and a half ago that he was contemplating a second run and said that his ability to raise money — a part of the exercise that he has never enjoyed — would be a key factor in his decision
He announced his bid here in the resonantly named birthplace he shares with the 42nd president of the United States, Bill Clinton, whose wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, is widely believed to have all but a lock on the Democratic nomination.
“Folks, it is a long way from a little brick red house on Second Street in Hope, Arkansas, to the White House,” he said. “But here in this small town called Hope, I was raised to believe that where a person’s starting didn’t mean that’s where he had to stop.”
His strategists say that Huckabee’s path to the nomination is premised on doing well in the early states of Iowa and South Carolina, which would give him momentum in the subsequent primary contests in the South.
The former Fox News host acknowledged that he is likely to remain at a disadvantage among rivals who have lined up deep-pocketed donors.
“I never have been and won’t be the favorite candidate of those in the Washington-to-Wall Street corridor of power,” he said in his 29-minute speech. “I will be funded and fueled not by billionaires but by working people across America.”
He is likely to face more competition than in the past for conservative Christian voters, who fueled his win in Iowa. Cruz in particular is making a strong play for that constituency.
But Huckabee is a gifted communicator, and on Tuesday he displayed his ability to throw a populist elbow without losing his affable demeanor.
His speech included a number of shots at his declared and yet-to-be-declared GOP opponents, although he did not name them.
He noted, for instance, that “some propose that to save safety nets like Medicare and Social Security, we need to chop off the payouts for the people who have faithfully had their paychecks and pockets picked by the politicians promising that their money would be waiting for them when they were old and sick.” The comment was an apparent reference to a proposal by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R).
“Imagine members of Congress boasting they will fight to repeal Obamacare and then turning around and signing up for it,” he added — a comment that describes a decision Cruz made after his wife took a leave from her investment banking job and lost her employer-provided benefits.
Huckabee also took aim at the entire array of sitting senators and governors who may be joining him onstage at the upcoming presidential debates, saying: “If someone is elected to an office, then give the taxpayers what they’re paying for and what you said you wanted. If you live off the government payroll and want to run for an office other than the one you’re elected to, then have the integrity and decency to resign the one you don’t want and pursue the one you decided you’d rather have.”
He did not mention the Clintons, who have been a frequent foil in his stump speech lately. Huckabee contends that his Arkansas roots make him the Republican candidate best suited to take on Hillary Rodham Clinton.
However, political observers in this state say he has exaggerated what he contends were epic battles with the “Clinton machine.” They note that by the time Huckabee won his first office, becoming lieutenant governor in 1993, the Clintons had already moved to Washington. Indeed, it was the ripple effect from then-Gov. Bill Clinton’s election to the White House that opened up that opportunity for Huckabee.
During his decade as governor, Huckabee racked up an impressive record getting legislation through an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature. Among his achievements were expanding health coverage for children and revamping the state’s education system.
In 2005, Time magazine named him one of the five most effective governors in the country, and Governing magazine dubbed him one of its “public officials of the year.”
The Arkansas governor also gained national attention when he lost 110 pounds after diabetes was diagnosed in 2002.
Huckabee collected some formidable enemies along the way, including conservative organizations such as the anti-tax Club for Growth, which deemed his gubernatorial record too liberal.
That feud is ongoing. Moments before Huckabee stepped onstage Tuesday, the group’s political action committee, Club for Growth Action, announced that it will be making a $100,000 television ad buy “to remind voters in Iowa and South Carolina of the tax increases that took place in Arkansas under the governorship of Mike Huckabee.”
Jose A. DelReal contributed to this report.