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Populist Huckabee may turn off bucks 

Everyone but Mike Huckabee seems to have forgotten that he finished second in the 2008 Republican presidential sweepstakes, ahead of Mitt Romney, and most people, notably excepting Huckabee himself, are now writing him off as an anachronism.

So Huckabee has undertaken what seems to be a one-man crusade to insert himself into the fevered speculation about the 2016 presidential race. Huckabee expressed resentment to The New York Times that the media doesn't mention him as a candidate although he was a pretty sure bet to win the early Iowa caucuses and the South Carolina primary if he ran. At Little Rock to talk to conservative preachers who expect to have a big role in 2016 politics, Huckabee in typical fashion implied that whether he ran was in God's hands.

The assumption has been and still is that Huckabee will not run because he would have to give up his lucrative media career and might not get it back if he floundered badly in the race. Now he is a tenant not of Arkansas but of the "Redneck Riviera," as he calls it, and he would be either the second- or third-ranked presidential candidate from Florida, behind Sen. Marco Rubio and perhaps former Gov. Jeb Bush.

It could simply be that Huckabee suffers from the vanity of not having his name in the lights as a contender and from the anxiety that not being there renders his job as a TV commentator less secure.

But let's assume that Huckabee genuinely thinks that 2016 offers him a better chance than did either 2008 or 2012, when he deferred to Romney and a gang of misfits who flamed out even quicker than the field in 2008. The man's radar has been sure enough that in both Arkansas and the country he went far beyond where meager funds and an unRepublican record should have taken him.

It is actually pleasant to imagine that Huckabee is right that Republicans by 2016 will be eager to choose a person like him who, much of the time, shuns the values that breed success nowadays in Republican precincts: spite for the poor, immigrants, blacks and the works of government, and uncompromising war against Democrats and liberals.

Huckabee's political coterie is altogether the evangelical movement, a great force for the Republican Party since President Reagan's latter days and a movement the Baptist preacher exploited better than Pat Robertson or any of the others. Invoking the Bible and God's blessings, he brought out swarms of fundamentalists in New Hampshire and Southern and Midwestern primaries. When his poll numbers surged in the early winter of the election season he said God did it, the same as He had "helped a little boy with two fish and five loaves feed a crowd of 5,000."

Huckabee's smarmy piety turned off secular and libertarian Republicans. When he ran TV ads in Iowa that showed a glowing cross behind him, Rep. Ron Paul, one of his foes, recalled the (fictitious) warning of Sinclair Lewis that "when fascism comes to this country, it will be wrapped in the flag, carrying a cross." Huckabee corralled 10 delegates to each one for Paul, whose son Rand may be a big contender in 2016.

But evangelicals in 2016 will get Huckabee no further than they got him in 2008, so if he runs where will he sow? He gave the preachers a good populist message. Republicans, he said, have to quit denigrating poor people and instead make war on the real "axis of evil," Washington and Wall Street.

Republicans haven't had a real populist candidate since Teddy Roosevelt and Robert M. "Fighting Bob" LaFollette, who is enshrined with Henry Clay as one of the two greatest senators in U.S. history. LaFollette eventually left the Republican Party when he realized that the antislavery party had become the party of the railroads, Wall Street and big industry.

It's hard to imagine "Fighting Mike" in LaFollette mode, but there he was last week outdoing Barack Obama and telling the preachers about the vast and growing gulf between rich and the middle class and poor and how the middle class had lost ground while the 1 percent had prospered.

He took on the Club for Growth, Freedom Works and Heritage Action, the big-money PACs that fight federal taxes, spending and Obamacare and coincidentally, in the case of the Club for Growth and Freedom Works, Mike Huckabee. The Club for Growth blunted Huckabee's momentum in 2008 with ads attacking him as a big-government liberal who raised taxes, spending and debt in Arkansas.

Huckabee still complains about the group's "lies" about him, but the rich bullies actually were factual. Huckabee raised more taxes than any governor in Arkansas history, more than doubled the state debt, raised the government job roster by 22 percent, vastly expanded government health care and in his last months in office got a waiver from the Bush administration for an Obamacare-style pilot program to extend Medicaid to working childless adults, the riff-raff that Republicans everywhere but in Arkansas have tried to block from the Medicaid rolls. He promised in 2000 to extend health insurance to every Arkansan before he left office, but a school crisis intervened and he never got around to it.

But there is a disconnect in Huckabee's strategy. To get his 2016 campaign rolling he would like to tap into the Republican superPACs like those favored by billionaire gambling mogul Sheldon Adelson, who single-handedly kept Newt Gingrich in the presidential race last year.

Governor, those bucks don't go to populists.

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