Backers see Mike Huckabee filling VP niche

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, Friday, Feb. 10, 2012.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Mike Huckabee, CPAC
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, Friday, Feb. 10, 2012.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

(CBS News) If Mitt Romney's most pressing consideration in selecting a running mate is to find someone who can expand his appeal among independents or a critical demographic that remains up for grabs, several candidates would likely fit the bill better than Mike Huckabee.

But if the former Massachusetts governor instead concludes that his right flank is not as secure as it needs to be, Huckabee may be among his best options.

The winner of the 2008 Iowa caucuses remains one of the most popular and well-recognized conservatives nationwide, and his decision not to launch a second presidential run removed what might have been Romney's toughest competitor on the road to the Republican nomination.

Thus far, most GOP strategists assume that the urgency to defeat President Obama will negate any conservatives' thoughts about staying home in November. Romney's primary concern over the next five months, this dominant line of thinking goes, is to make headway with the narrow slice of the electorate who can be won by either candidate.

With that in mind, Huckabee backers are quick to draw attention to the former Arkansas governor's affable demeanor, lack of pretention, and his up-from-the-bootstraps personal story, all of which might soften Romney's image and make the GOP ticket more relatable to blue-collar independents.

But chief among the pro-Huckabee arguments made by many former aides and close confidants is that he could be an instant cure for the presumptive nominee's lingering problems within his party's base -- a concern that his Boston-based campaign may be underestimating.

"Romney is still weak among evangelicals and the faith-based community, and there's probably no one else in the country who could better take that off the table than Huckabee," said Mike Campbell, who helmed Huckabee's 2008 campaign in South Carolina. "When you go beyond that, he's extremely popular with the Tea Party and with the fair-tax community. These are people that Romney is going to desperately have to have that level of comfort with, and I just don't think there's anyone else out there who can balance off the ticket as well as [Huckabee] does."

Through his best-selling books, paid speaking engagements, and contract with FOX News, where he hosts the most popular weekend news program on cable television, Huckabee has secured a significant influence as well as a comfortable lifestyle that was widely believed to be the reason he declined to launch a second presidential run last year.

But Campbell professed not to have any doubt that the former two-term governor would jump at an opportunity to serve at the national level, if asked to do so.

"If they receive the phone call, no one turns down the vice presidency," Campbell said, noting the relative brevity of a vice-presidential run vs. the years-long commitment that seeking the presidency can be. "He would step up and do it, not just for Romney and the party, but for the country."

When asked on FOX News about the possibility of becoming Romney's running mate last month, Huckabee gave a boilerplate non-denial of interest and reverentially suggested that Marco Rubio would be a better choice for Romney.

"I haven't gotten a call and I doubt I will, so I just merrily go about doing my business," he said.

Former members of Huckabee's inner political circle, however, are far less coy in making the case for him.

Hogan Gidley, who was Huckabee's communications director before joining Rick Santorum's presidential campaign staff, said that he planned to make calls this week to friends in the Romney campaign to vouch for the man he said would be "an outstanding pick."

"The way the news cycle is now, the vice presidency is more high-profile than it used to be, and you need to have someone who's vetted and doesn't have any major surprises," Gidley said. "I think one of the reasons to pick Mike Huckabee is that he's done it before. He's been vetted, he's good on the stump, he's great on a debate stage, he's inspiring, he was a governor, he energizes the base."

Gidley noted that in addition to bringing an extensive grass-roots network that would be "a force to be reckoned with" if activated, Huckabee would boost Romney's outsider appeal as a former governor who built an impressive record working with an overwhelmingly Democratic state legislature.

"I know he loves the radio and he loves FOX News, but that kind of stuff doesn't drive Governor Huckabee," Gidley said. "He's a Christian, and he's had to answer the call several times to run for office, and it wasn't always the convenient time. Quite frankly, it was never convenient."

Though Romney appeared as a guest on Huckabee's new radio show last month and there have been other signs of a thaw in their previously frosty relationship, the two men's divergent backgrounds and personalities might be difficult to reconcile in a campaign setting.

During their 2008 primary battle, Huckabee appeared time and again to harbor a visceral disdain for Romney that he revealed most overtly during a series of acrimonious exchanges on debate stages.

And while Romney has mended fences with other former Republican rivals, in selecting Huckabee as his running mate he would have to look past a particularly unpleasant moment in December of 2007 when Huckabee asked a New York Times reporter, "Don't Mormons believe that Jesus and the devil are brothers?"

That line of "innocent" questioning earned a stern rebuke from Romney and a subsequent apology from Huckabee, but the highly charged issues of faith continued to play a significant role in the Romney/Huckabee duel leading into the Iowa caucuses that year.

Despite having already been vetted, Huckabee's extensive use of pardons and commutations as governor, his ethics controversies and a fiscal record that garnered criticism from economic conservatives would again be brought to the forefront by a national media that had only begun to dig into his record in late 2007 and early 2008.

Huckabee's potential to jump-start the Republican ticket is clear, but the risks are just as apparent. As someone who cultivated a niche in the Republican field as the most authentic social conservative in the 2008 race, his appeal to suburban swing voters remains questionable.

Huckabee remains an intriguing wildcard in the VP race, but his selection, should it come, would be a surprise to most observers.

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    Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.