- Associated Press - Sunday, May 10, 2015

HOPE, Ark. (AP) - Touting himself as an outsider as he launched his second bid for the Republican presidential nomination, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is relying on many of the same themes that helped him first get elected 22 years ago.

Back then, he promised to “unplug” a Democratic political machine in a state where Republicans were a rare sight in public office. Now that he’s again seeking the White House, he’s relying on a political machine in his home state that has his fingerprints all over it.

Huckabee announced his bid last week in Hope, the hometown he shares with former President Bill Clinton, and sought to make the kind of populist appeal that helped get him elected lieutenant governor and later governor.

“I’m going to let you in on a little secret. I never have been and won’t be the favorite candidate of those in the ‘Washington to Wall Street’ corridor of power,” Huckabee told a crowd of hundreds gathered at a community college auditorium.

The message echoed Huckabee’s message in his 1993 race for lieutenant governor, when argued a “political machine” ran the state.

“It caters to its special interest friends,” Huckabee said in a television ad for that race. “There is one set of rules for them and another for the rest of us. We can unplug the machine.”

During his announcement, Huckabee reached back to that message and called himself someone who governed the “most lopsided and partisan” state - one that was dominated by Democrats.

“I challenged the deeply entrenched political machine that ran this state,” Huckabee said.

It’s part of an argument Huckabee’s tried to make that he’s the best positioned to take on Hillary Rodham Clinton in a general election, claiming he took on the Clinton machine in Arkansas. It’s a claim that political observers have said is overstated.

“It’s a useful national narrative, but in the state it seems like a stretch,” University of Arkansas political science professor Janine Parry said.

Huckabee never ran against either Clinton in Arkansas, but his political rise was closely linked to the former first family. Bill Clinton’s White House win in 1992 cleared the way for Huckabee’s rise, with Democrat Jim Guy Tucker’s ascension into the governorship creating an opening for lieutenant governor.

“Bill Clinton becoming president opened up a lot of doors for Mike Huckabee. How about that?” former state Rep. Jonathan Barnett, a longtime friend of Huckabee’s, said.

Huckabee’s allies argue he was running against a Democratic Party that was heavily influenced by the state’s favorite political son.

“Just because you’re out of state doesn’t mean you don’t still have a machine still in state,” said state GOP Chairman Doyle Webb.

A glance around the auditorium Huckabee’s presidential announcement showed just how much times have changed in a state where Republicans now control the Legislature as well as its federal and statewide offices. It also showed that if there’s a political machine running Arkansas, it’s one that is inextricably linked to Huckabee - even though he no longer lives in the state.

Introducing Huckabee at the event was Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who chaired the state Republican Party when Huckabee first sought elected office in the early 90s. The audience included Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, a former attorney for Huckabee, and several Republican legislators. The state’s lieutenant governor, Tim Griffin, is advising Huckabee’s campaign on a volunteer basis.

But Webb, who is backing Huckabee’s bid, said he wouldn’t say Huckabee has a political machine in the state the same way he believes the Clintons did.

“I think there are a lot of Huckabee supporters. I’m not sure how deep that machine is,” Webb said.


Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

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