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Bacon, Beyoncé, and bad words -- Huckabee wages an all-out culture war

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is focusing nearly all of his energy on social issues that other GOP hopefuls would rather not touch. The question is: Why?
Former Governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee listens to his introduction from the side of the stage at the Freedom Summit in Des Moines, Iowa, Jan. 24, 2015 (Photo by jim Young/Reuters)
Former Governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee listens to his introduction from the side of the stage at the Freedom Summit in Des Moines, Iowa, Jan. 24, 2015

He’s talked about bacon, Beyoncé, and bad words. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a potential 2016 presidential contender, is focusing nearly all of his energy on social issues that other GOP hopefuls would rather not touch. Now the question on everyone’s mind is: Why?

Once high on the list of reasons to vote Republican, social issues in general -- and marriage equality in particular -- have fallen out of favor in recent years. But Huckabee isn’t ready to turn his back on the Evangelical market he’s worked to corner just yet. Some wonder if he’s serious about running at all, or if he’s just trying to get attention during his book tour. Others believe he’s sincerely playing to his religious convictions, which also happen to be his political strengths. But whatever his motivation, Huckabee seems dead set on making social issues a part of the 2016 election.

"What it comes down to is his playbook is dated ... most of the other candidates won’t take the bait."'

After threatening to leave the Republican Party if it endorsed marriage equality, Huckabee, a Baptist pastor turned politician, said expecting Christians to accept same-sex marriage was “like asking someone who’s Jewish to start serving bacon-wrapped shrimp in their deli.” He also called homosexuality a “lifestyle choice” that he didn’t agree with, like drinking or swearing, but that such differences didn’t prevent him from governing or having a good relationship with gay people.

"I don't chuck people out of my circle or out of my life because they have a different point of view,” Huckabee told CNN’s Dana Bash. “I don't drink alcohol, but, gosh, a lot of my friends, maybe most of them, do. You know, I don't use profanity, but, believe me, I have got a lot of friends who do.”

The remarks were just the latest in a long list of recent head-scratchers that prompted The Daily Show to declare Huckabee a “shocked, Southern version of Buddy the Elf.” In a radio interview last week, the former Fox News host doubled down on comments he made about women in New York who use profanity, saying that such talk in a professional setting was “just trashy.” And in his new book, “Gods, Guns, Grits and Gravy,” Huckabee takes aim at pop superstar Beyoncé for her “explicit” dance moves and argues that the singer’s husband Jay-Z has become a “pimp by exploiting his wife as a sex object.” He also criticized the Obamas’ parenting skills for allowing their daughters to listen to the “Drunk In Love” singer.

These are undoubtedly odd issues for someone who wants to hold the highest office in the land to be discussing -- and perhaps, that’s not what Huckabee’s actually after. But whether he’s laying the groundwork for another presidential run or he’s just trying to sell books, his latest headline-making remarks on social issues could have major implications for 2016.

RELATED: Huckabee signals social issues aren’t going away in 2016

For one thing, they could force other GOP contenders to match his bacon-wrapped shrimp rhetoric on marriage equality at a time when an increasing number of voters favor its legalization. On the flip side, a race to the right between Huckabee and other social conservatives, like Ben Carson and Rick Santorum, could fire up more mainstream voters to favor the Republican who strikes a more conciliatory chord on marriage equality, like Jeb Bush or Scott Walker.

Perhaps Huckabee’s insistent focus on social issues is a strategic effort to distract voters from some of his political liabilities, like tax hikes during his time as governor and lack of foreign policy experience? Or maybe he’s just saying what he thinks -- plain and simple.

“I think it’s sincere,” John J. Pitney Jr., a former national GOP official and a government professor at Claremont McKenna College, told msnbc. “It’s natural for somebody who was ordained as a minister, who came out of a background that emphasized social issues, to talk like this. So I don’t think there’s anything Machiavellian here.”

Of course, sincerity and politics aren’t always mutually exclusive. And even though many Americans curse, favor marriage equality, and are fans of Queen Bey, there’s a sizeable group of people who don’t fit that mold: Republican primary voters, many of whom are older, more religious, and value the concept of “traditional marriage.”

Just 7% of likely Republican caucus-goers in Iowa, the first state in the nation to kick off the presidential nominating process, said they viewed social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage as the most important topic for the next president to discuss, according to the latest Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Iowa poll. Sixty-one percent also said that Huckabee stepped over the line when he criticized the Obamas’ parenting skills.

"This is 2016, not 2008, and things have changed. But I wouldn’t be so quick to doubt Gov. Huckabee’s political instincts given his record of wins."'

But one of the most astonishing results of the poll -- and perhaps one of the few guiding Huckabee’s current culture war -- was that 40% agreed with his characterization of Beyoncé’s music as “mental poison.” Fifty-seven percent also said that Huckabee was “about right” ideologically, second only to Rick Perry, another outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage.

Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2008 with basically no money, clearly knows a thing or two about what matters to early primary voters.

“This is 2016, not 2008, and things have changed,” said Keith Appell, a GOP strategist, to msnbc. “But I wouldn’t be so quick to doubt Gov. Huckabee’s political instincts given his record of wins, as well as being elected governor numerous times in Arkansas. He has demonstrated a fair amount of political savvy throughout his career.”

Others aren’t so sure of Huckabee’s Iowa mojo.

“If he had merely said we should respect people’s religious beliefs, it would be hard for anybody to throw that at him,” said Pitney of Huckabee’s remarks on same-sex marriage. “He has a long history of unforced errors and this comes under that heading.”

To be clear, Huckabee’s focus on social conservatism isn’t new. In 2008, the website for his presidential campaign declared, “My faith doesn’t influence my decisions, it drives them.” But in addition to talking about “Faith, Family, Freedom” -- Huckabee’s former campaign slogan -- he also had tangible policy positions -- like tax cuts, education and the arts, and energy independence -- that no one’s really hearing about today.

RELATED: Mike Huckabee bets big on difficult 2016 journey

Perhaps he’s trying to once again shift the election toward issues of character and religion. But if that’s the case, strategists say, the rest of the GOP field won’t be dragged so far to the right again where it becomes impossible for any of them to win in the general election.

“What it comes down to is his playbook is dated,” said Rek LeCounte, a conservative writer and communications strategist, to msnbc. “I think he probably feels [marriage] is his strength issue. He’s talked about it for a while, it’s an issue he’s known for. So if he can get the discussion to be about this, he’ll have the upper hand.”

But, said LeCounte, “most of the other candidates won’t take the bait.”