Just minutes after announcing his presidential candidacy Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press," former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the other man from Hope, tried out his new stump speech before a ballroom crowd of conservative activists in Washington. "I really do believe this country needs authentic conservative leadership that is positive and optimistic about our future," said the Baptist minister, who ran Bill Clinton's home state for a decade and now wants the Republican nomination.
Right now, Huckabee is a self-described "underdog." He has yet to announce any significant campaign staff or ground operations in key states like New Hampshire or Iowa. He has no significant fundraising operation, faces skepticism from conservatives for refusing to sign a pledge against tax increases, and must endure a tough contest with Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., to become the candidate of choice for the GOP's evangelical base. But no one should count Huckabee out. In this political season, with the Republican Party in disarray and polls showing ongoing revulsion with Washington insiders, an unknown underdog from the South may just be a golden ticket to the White House.
While describing himself as a "conservative," the stump speech he delivered Sunday was designed as a broad appeal to the American middle, the heartland that is sick of Washington politics. Drop out a few lines -- like his endorsement of a Steve Forbes flat tax -- and most of the speech could have been delivered by a Democratic candidate for president. Huckabee condemned the incompetence of the federal response to Hurricane Katrina. He attacked white-collar crooks who have squandered people's pensions. He spoke of fathers who are worried about pink slips and parents who can't pay their medical bills when their son breaks his arm.
Perhaps the most notable part of the speech was what he never said. He made no mention of his longtime stand on social issues -- pro-life, anti-gay marriage, vocal about his own faith -- that gives him a natural advantage over the Republican front-runners, Arizona Sen. John McCain and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who are viewed skeptically by evangelical leaders. It is clear that Huckabee has more in common with Bill Clinton than a birthplace named Hope. He is an outsider, a talented speaker who likes the crowds, and a man promising a third way at a time when the nation wants change. This much can be said: It's an act that has worked before.