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Huckabee launches 2016 campaign with populist pitch

Updated

HOPE, Arkansas — Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee announced a second long-shot bid for the Republican presidential nomination Tuesday, positioning himself as a blue-collar champion of working Americans and conservative Christian cultural warrior.

“I don’t have a global foundation or a taxpayer funded paycheck to live off of. I don’t come from a family dynasty, but a working family,” Huckabee told an adoring auditorium packed with supporters in his hometown of Hope, Arkansas. “I grew up blue collar, and not blue blood.” 

The former Baptist preacher and bass player was greeted as the hometown hero here, welcomed on the marquee signs at the local McDonald’s and the Mexican restaurant Dos Loco Gringos, where owner Mike Brown regaled visitors with stories about playing drums in Huckabee’s band underneath a car port while neighbors gathered. The local paper, the Hope Star, devoted most of its front page to the former governor, who in the 1990s told the paper he and was born in the same hospital as former President Bill Clinton, Hope’s favorite son. (The hospital is now a funeral home.) 

“I grew up blue collar, and not blue blood.”
Mike Huckabee
Huckabee, who’s recently made millions as a Fox News host and radio personality, faces a crowded field of rivals, many of whom will compete with him directly for the evangelical supporters who carried him to victory in the Iowa caucuses in 2008. He’s the third Republican candidate to announce a run for president this week alone, following neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina into the race.

Huckabee’s spirited announcement speech was long on populist rhetoric that included claiming that “unbalanced” trade deals could cause wages to fall “lower than the Dead Sea,” a position that is in some ways to the left even of Hillary Clinton; warning of the potential for an electromagnetic terrorist attack that could send the country back to “the Stone Age”; and calling for the protection of Social Security and Medicare. It offered glimmers of the strategy he’ll use on the campaign trail as he tries to stand out from a pack that includes many conservative faces that are newer to the spotlight. 

In the speech, Huckabee didn’t mention any of his presidential rivals by name, but the “dynasty” contrast with Republican Jeb Bush and Democrat Hillary Clinton was clear – as was the criticism of the litany of sitting elected officials who are putting their day jobs on the back burner to run for president.

“If you live off the government payroll and want to run for an office other than the one you’re elected to,” Huckabee said, “then have the integrity and decency to resign the one you don’t want and pursue the one you decided you’d rather have.”

Related: Does Mike Huckabee stand a chance?

Sens. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio; and Govs. Scott Walker and Chris Christie are among those seeking or likely to seek the presidency who currently have day jobs in public service.

Huckabee’s path to the nomination would have to be similar to the one he started down in 2008, beginning with a victory in Iowa’s caucuses, where social conservatives hold sway. “We have witnessed the slaughter of over 55 million babies in the name of choice,” Huckabee said Tuesday, in a nod to those voters, and decried an abandonment of “Biblical principles of natural marriage.” 

This time around, Huckabee has said, he won’t have the same problem he faced in 2008: He didn’t have enough money to sustain his campaign past Iowa, or to answer tough ads criticizing his record as governor of Arkansas. Mitt Romney, then running to the right of John McCain and others in the 2008 primary, aired ads in Iowa accusing Huckbee of giving scholarship money to undocumented immigrants, among other criticism.

“I never have been and won’t be the favorite candidate of those in the ‘Washington to Wall Street’ corridor of power,” he said Tuesday.

Huckabee was already raising money Tuesday; while his campaign aides refused to confirm that he would run ahead of the speech delivery time, envelopes for attendees were pre-addressed to “Huckabee for President Inc.”

The first in his family to go to college, Huckabee’s up-by-the-bootstraps story is somewhat unique in the GOP field. His wife introduced him by telling the crowd how he once sold two prized guitars to pay for a washer and dryer for their growing family as the young couple struggled to get by.

The theme featured prominently in his first video, played at the announcement, which shows him declaring: “I’m not a Republican because I grew up rich, I’m a Republican because I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life poor, waiting for the government to rescue me.”

Over time, Huckabee has made a name for himself appealing to cultural conservatives. He has featured actor Chuck Norris in his ads (“Chuck Norris doesn’t endorse. He tells America how it’s going to be”), and campaigned with the Duggar family from the reality show “19 Kids and Counting” – many of whom were in the audience on Tuesday.

Related: Huckabee gears up for presidential announcement with new video

But Huckabee has sometimes raised eyebrows in the process.

In a speech last year, Huckabee said Democrats insult women “by making them believe that they are helpless without ‘uncle sugar’ coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government.”

As he was promoting his new book, “God, Guns, Grits and Gravy,” he decried Beyonce’s music as “mental poison” – and, in an interview with People magazine, criticized President and Michelle Obama for letting their daughters listen to it.

And in a separate stop on the book tour, he told radio host Jan Mickelson that he was surprised by how much the women he worked with in New York City used swear words. “That’s just trashy,” he said.

It earned him a teasing, on-air rebuke from Megyn Kelly, his former Fox News colleague, when he appeared on her show “The Kelly File.”

“We are not only swearing. We’re drinking, we’re smoking, we’re having premarital sex with birth control, before we go to work and sometimes boss around a bunch of men,” Kelly said, smiling, as Huckabee laughed.

Huckabee will kick off his campaign with an appearance on Kelly’s show on Wednesday night ahead of an expected interview on “Good Morning America” on Wednesday morning. Then he’ll campaign for two days in Iowa before flying to South Carolina, where he’ll give an economic speech.

“We will never break the cycle of poverty by pushing people to their minimum wage, but by empowering them to reach their maximum wage,” Huckabee said. He opposes raising the minimum wage.

Mike Huckabee

Huckabee launches 2016 campaign with populist pitch

Updated