Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee announced his second bid for the White House, hoping to rekindle and build on the support from evangelical Republicans that catapulted him to a win in 2008’s Iowa caucuses and a third-place showing overall in that year’s GOP nomination battle.
Mr. Huckabee, a Baptist minister before winning the governorship, returned to his hometown of Hope — also the launchpad for former President Clinton — to announce his new campaign, making overtures to religiously driven voters and vowing to fight threats against Christianity both at home and abroad.
He said he would “conquer” radical jihadis and send a clear message to the Ayatollahs of Iran “that Hell will freeze over before they ever get a nuclear weapon!” When it comes to issues like abortion and traditional marriage, Mr. Huckabee, 59, warned, “we’ve lost our way morally.”
“We have witnessed the slaughter of over 55 million babies in the name of choice, and are now threatening the foundation of religious liberty by criminalizing Christianity in demanding that we abandon Biblical principles of natural marriage,” he said. “Many of our politicians have surrendered to the false god of judicial supremacy, which would allow black-robed and unelected judges the power to make law and enforce it — upending the equality of our three branches of government and the separation of powers so very central to our Constitution. The Supreme Court is not the Supreme Being, and they can’t overturn the laws of nature or of nature’s God.”
Religious conservatives helped Mr. Huckabee win Iowa and seven other states in 2008, but political operatives say the former governor might have a tougher time winning those voters next year because of the sheer size of the GOP field, the fact that he’s no longer a fresh face, and the focus that his issues are getting from the other candidates.
“I think the sledding is going to be tougher for Mr. Huckabee, and Rick Santorum” said Rick Halverson, chairman of the Warren County GOP, who supported Mr. Huckabee in 2008, and Mr. Santorum in 2012. “I don’t think either one of those are going to be able to garner and muster the support to come out on top in Iowa this time.”
Exit polls from the 2008 Iowa caucuses show that Mr. Huckabee picked up nearly half of the born-again or evangelical Christian voters, who made up six in ten caucuses goers.
Mr. Huckabee passed on a run in 2012, leaving Mr. Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, the choice of many religious conservatives. Their support powered him to a narrow victory over Mitt Romney in Iowa’s caucuses — though Mr. Santorum, like Mr. Huckabee in 2008, didn’t have the money or organization to compete all the way through.
Polls show that Mr. Huckabee is running near the front of the pack in Iowa and South Carolina, which hosts the first primary in the South and where the religious right has a solid footing.
GOP observers predicted that religious conservatives will be even more dialed in to next year’s elections because of the ongoing battles over same-sex marriage and abortion, as well as their increasing concerns over government threats to religious liberty and over K-12 education Common Core education standards.
But the competition for those voters will also be hotter. Will Rogers, chairman of the Polk County, Iowa GOP, said Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who declared his candidacy earlier this year, and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who entered the race on Monday, will have an appeal.
“That piece of the pie in terms of the overall caucus vote is going to get further sliced up and will mean a diminishing return in terms of the evangelical voters that are going to participate in the caucus,” Mr. Rogers said. “If we are legitimately looking at 15 candidates that could be in the field, actively campaigning and soliciting voters here in the state of Iowa, a path to victory becomes more of a challenge for someone like Mike Huckabee, even though he has had great success here in the past.”
Steve Scheffler, a member of the Republican National Committee from Iowa and head of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, said that Mr. Huckabee’s biggest strengths are that he is a strong advocate of traditional marriage and pro-life positions, and he has a Rolodex with the names of supporters from 2008.
“That certainly gives him a base and a number to work with and build on,” Mr. Scheffler said. “But knowing Iowa voters, they kind of like to wipe the slate clean and start over again” from one election to the next.
Mr. Huckabee entered the race the same week as Mr. Carson and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marco Rubio of Florida and Mr. Cruz also are officially running.
Speaking at the University of Arkansas Community College in Hope, Mr. Huckabee said it made sense for him to announce his candidacy in the same place where he learned about guns, found religion and met his wife, who he has been married to for 41 years.
“So it seems perfectly fitting that it would be here that I announce that I am a candidate for president of the United States of America,” Mr. Huckabee said, sparking a roar of approval from the crowd.
He vowed to strengthen health care, protect Social Security and abolish the IRS, replacing the tax code with the Fair Tax sales levy. He also pledged to fight for term limits on elected officials in Washington, said the nation must secure its borders and said he opposes “amnesty” for illegal immigrants.