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Life full, Huckabee not set to leap

Signals are mixed on a run in 2012

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By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / March 8, 2011

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HOLLAND, Mich. — The prayers had subsided. The choir completed a final, reverberating crescendo. Hands raised in reverence in the 2,700-seat megachurch were lowered in anticipation of the guest preacher.

Mike Huckabee rose from his pew and helpfully clarified which version of himself stood before the faithful on this particular snowy Sunday — whether it was the folksy pastor, the Fox News program host, the conservative radio pundit, the prolific author, or, most intriguingly, the potential candidate considering another presidential run.

“If you’ve come here to hear a political speech, you will be horribly disappointed because that’s not why I’m here,’’ said Huckabee, launching into a 35-minute sermon.

But politics inevitably bubbled up at Central Wesleyan Church in this community southwest of Grand Rapids, once Huckabee slipped on his entrepreneurial hat and fans lined up in the lobby to buy his latest book.

A woman yelled: “Run for president!’’

“We’ll see,’’ replied the former Arkansas governor, after signing dozens of books or, in some cases, Bibles.

Huckabee’s public appearances these days are steeped in questions about his political intentions, generating excitement among his core supporters in the powerful Christian right, not to mention national media attention. Huckabee says he is in no hurry to make a decision.

Instead, he is reaping the financial rewards all the attention — in the form of contracts with book publishers, Fox News, and a nationally syndicated radio show — while prolonging uncertainty about the GOP primary field.

Polls say Huckabee is able to challenge Mitt Romney for front-runner status and could again prove fatal to the former Massachusetts governor’s plans for the presidency if Romney also runs, as is expected.

During the 2008 campaign, Huckabee ruined Romney’s strategy by defeating him in Iowa and then staying in the race long enough to prevent Romney from going head-to-head with Senator John McCain.

The two have remained bitter rivals, and Huckabee has already started launching direct attacks at Romney’s health care plan in Massachusetts. “It could be argued that if RomneyCare were a patient, the prognosis would be dismal,’’ Huckabee writes in his new book, “A Simple Government.’’

While Romney spent part of his fortune to run for president, Huckabee ran for president and now, for the first time, is making a fortune. Huckabee is open about his own ambivalence about giving that up.

“One of the things that I have to understand is that if I run, I walk away from a pretty good income,’’ Huckabee told reporters in Washington recently, at an afternoon tea hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. “So I don’t want to walk away earlier than I have to.’’

Huckabee reportedly earns about $500,000 a year from Fox News, which last week suspended the contracts of several other likely presidential candidates. He also had a radio show and makes a range of appearances — such as being the featured guest on a weeklong Alaskan cruise this coming summer (tickets start at $1,699 per person).

Huckabee grew up in Hope, Ark., the son of a fireman and a homemaker and the first in his family to go to college. He has talked openly about his newfound wealth, but still appears to be sensitive about the image projected by his new $3 million beachfront house on Florida’s Gulf Coast, in Walton County.

Huckabee, through his publisher, initially agreed to a 30-minute interview for this article, but canceled once he learned that the Globe had taken a photograph of the construction on his new home in Florida.

“The governor was very upset that the Globe sent a photographer to cover the construction of his FL home,’’ Allison McLean, associate director of publicity for his publisher, said in an e-mail.

Approached after his sermons in Michigan, Huckabee explained that news coverage of the house concerned him because of security issues for his family. “That’s just not cool,’’ Huckabee said. “We’ve got crazy people that come to my house when my wife’s home alone. You wouldn’t like that. I don’t either.’’

Huckabee has been participating in the typical rituals of a presidential aspirant. When he traveled to Iowa for a book tour last week, he chartered a bus and had a team of helpers in “Team Huck’’ shirts. Last month he traveled to Israel and sat down with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But unlike Romney and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, who spent a few days in the country, Huckabee visited for two weeks. He led a tour group around the country in a deluxe motor couch, charging $4,479 per person for five-star hotel stays and all meals included.

His quest for attention as a potential presidential candidate, though, has also led to several media gaffes. Last week, he claimed incorrectly that President Obama grew up in Kenya, and then had to clarify comments he made about actress Natalie Portman getting pregnant before getting married. Both caused negative reactions that diverted from discussions about policies, or his new book.

Many political activists and Huckabee supporters are beginning to wonder: Are these the signals of a man running for president?

“My sense of it is that he is genuinely torn,’’ said Rex Nelson, who served as Huckabee’s press secretary for nine years. “I don’t think it’s an act. There’s one side of him that says, ‘Man I got so close last time.’ Then there’s the other side of him that says, ‘I’m really having a good time making more money than I ever have in my whole life.’ It’s like the devil and the angel in ‘Animal House’.’’

That tug of war — both for Huckabee, and for GOP leaders wondering whether he will enter the race — is likely to drag out for months. Huckabee says he has no plans to announce his intentions until this summer.

“I think a lot of folks going out too early may be like marathoners who at mile 19 are laying on the ground with cramps in their legs,’’ Huckabee said during a brief press conference last week in West Des Moines, Iowa. “You’ve got to pace it very carefully.’’

Huckabee advisers say he has the luxury of starting later than he did last cycle, with far more name recognition, greater support in the polls, and a campaign apparatus left from 2008.

“He’s having a great time right now,’’ said Chip Saltsman, who ran Huckabee’s 2008 campaign and now goes on the occasional duck hunting trip with him. “But I’ll tell you, too, that he knows how important it is for the Republican Party to elect someone who can defeat Barack Obama. If he thinks he’s that guy, I’ll think he’ll run.’’

One challenge for Huckabee will be his paltry fund-raising. During the last campaign, he spent $16 million, compared to Romney’s $107 million. Over the past few years, Romney has done more using his own political action committee to both keep his donor network active, and to curry favor with candidates by donating to their campaigns. Romney raised $5.6 million last year, compared with only $980,000 for Huckabee.

Huckabee has also done little of the political spadework that other candidates have performed, like setting up agreements with local fund-raisers and hiring staff.

But any question about whether Huckabee is weighing another run was answered by his book tour itinerary: six stops in Iowa.

Last Monday night, his giant book tour bus — one that could be easily converted into a campaign bus — rolled into a strip mall in West Des Moines.

About two dozen supporters stood in the cold outside a Borders bookstore waving signs that read “Iowa Likes Mike,’’ and “I’m Huck’s Cheerleader.’’

He was greeted inside with a cheering line of 250 people, some of whom showed up 2 1/2 hours early to have him autograph their sweatshirts, concert posters, and magazine covers. Parents stood behind a red line and took photos of their children with Huckabee, as if he were Santa Claus.

“His communication skills are off the charts,’’ said Randy Davis, 55, a chalk artist who drove 90 minutes from Ottumwa to show Huckabee the homemade message on his shirt: “Run Mike Run!’’ “They called Reagan the Great Communicator. Huckabee has the potential to become the Greatest Communicator.’’

One of his closest friends, Rick Caldwell, e-mailed Huckabee recently after spotting him on television.

“I told him I was praying for him on the trek ahead, with the book tour,’’ said Caldwell, who was Huckabee’s college roommate at Ouchita Baptist University. “He responded, ‘Please do. This tour is really going to help me with my decision.’ ’’

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.

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