Huckabee's Future Still Bright

Mike Huckabee's shot at the White House may have ended Tuesday night, but that doesn't mean it's entirely out of his grasp. He may just have to wait four or eight years.

Allies and experts say the former Arkansas governor still has a bright political future, despite his unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination. Despite strong wins in Iowa and Bible belt states such as Georgia, Alabama and Arkansas, Huckabee failed to come within reach of presumptive nominee John McCain.

Huckabee has said he's not angling for a vice presidential slot and not considering a run for the United States Senate, but there's plenty he can do to remain a viable candidate in 2012 - or 2016, if he's really patient.

"Mike Huckabee leaves this campaign in a much stronger position nationally than when he entered it. I believe that his future is now nationally rather than just here in Arkansas," said Skip Rutherford, dean of the University of Arkansas Clinton School for Public Service and a Democrat.

One thing Huckabee will have to do is the one area where he has little difficulty - staying in the public eye. The Southern Baptist preacher has shown he knows where the cameras are and has been a virtual mainstay on late-night programs such as Comedy Central's The Colbert Report.

Tim Hutchinson, a former senator and one of Huckabee's most outspoken supporters, said the former governor should use that skill to reach out to more conservatives. Hutchinson said Huckabee should follow the model of the Republican party standard-bearer, Ronald Reagan, who wrote opinion pieces and made speeches around the nation after a narrow loss to Gerald Ford for the GOP nomination in 1976.

"Mike Huckabee is the greatest political communicator since Ronald Reagan on the Republican side. He has all those skills to follow that model. He has to stay engaged and he has to be speaking out," Hutchinson said.

U.S. Rep. John Boozman, the state's sole Republican congressman and another Huckabee supporter, said Huckabee may want to be more than just a guest on the late night circuit.

"I wouldn't be surprised at all to see him with his own television show," Boozman said.

Most of Huckabee's support in the Republican race came from social conservatives and evangelical Christians who were attracted to his stances on issues such as abortion and gay marriage. Huckabee may have to reach beyond the pulpit for his support the next time, though.

"He clearly has become a new spokesperson for social conservatives nationally over the last few months. I think the natural tendency would be for him to begin writing and speaking tours in that role," said Jay Barth, a political scientist at Hendrix College and a member of the Democratic Party's state committee. "The problem with that is he will only get further typecast as social conservative, as an evangelical spokesman and he's got to get beyond that base."

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That is what hurt him in New Hampshire, where the appeal he used to win over evangelicals in Iowa may have scared off voters.

"He never was able to show he could be a coalition candidate," said Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire. "He never was able to really reach beyond very conservative Republicans."

Hutchinson acknowledged that Huckabee, who faced criticism from opponents over a record of raising some taxes back home in Arkansas, may have to work harder to assure the economic conservatives that he's on their side.

"I think there is work to be done in reassuring economic conservatives in the party that Mike's populism is not a threat," Hutchinson said.

Huckabee will also have to work to assure voters that he has a grasp of foreign policy issues and has the gravitas to be the next commander in chief. One of his early stumbles came in January when he told reporters he was unaware of a report the White House had released saying Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program. He also warned that Pakistan is second only to Latin America in the number of immigrants in the U.S. illegally, which is not true.

All of this depends on whether Huckabee thinks his political future no longer lies in his home state. He still has time to file to run against Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor's re-election bid, an option that seems unlikely.

"That's not something he wants to do. He's come off better than a year of a grueling campaign and to jump into an Arkansas Senate race would mean you just keep on going," said Hutchinson, who lost his Senate seat to Pryor in 2002.

Or, as Huckabee put it, "I'd rather tattoo my body and tour with Amy Winehouse."

Rutherford said if Huckabee returns to his alma mater, Ouachita Baptist University, to take a long-awaited teaching gig, it would be a signal the former governor is possibly eyeing a 2010 run against Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln instead.

No matter what, he's going to have to change his game, experts say.

"I'm a little skeptical that he has enough juice to run in 2012 just as he is," Scala said.