WINDSOR HEIGHTS, Iowa - Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, everybody's favorite Bible-quoting, bass-guitar-playing Republican presidential candidate, is back on the trail, seven years after he won this state's caucuses.
On Sunday night, he arrived at the Walnut Creek Church next to I-235 in the suburbs of Des Moines to sign copies of his new book, God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy, for about 50 fans.
"Back when he ran in 2007-2008, the question was, who is Mike Huckabee," said Pastor Terry Amman, welcoming him with a slightly deflated cardinal-and-gold Iowa State University souvenir football. "That's all changed - he needs no introduction."
Indeed, Huckabee, a honey-voiced Baptist preacher by calling, is as familiar and comfortable as an old shoe in Iowa, the state that will cast the first votes for president in a little more than a year. The question is whether the fame Huckabee earned in his earlier campaign and in the Fox News show he recently gave up will be an asset or a hindrance in 2016.
"I guess we'll find out," said Chip Saltsman, the strategist who ran Huckabee's 2008 effort and is traveling on the book tour. "Our party usually nominates people who have run before."
Supporters were collecting names, e-mail addresses, and phone numbers of attendees at the event, a sign that Huckabee may soon be doing more than just selling books. He told reporters he got "a lot of encouragement" during his weekend stops in Iowa, including an appearance at a Saturday forum for conservative activists.
Still, that summit made clear that Huckabee would have plenty of competition for the evangelical and socially conservative voters who propelled him in 2008: Texas Sen. Ted Cruz; former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who won the caucuses four years ago; neurosurgeon/activist Ben Carson; and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
After he won here, Huckabee faded in later state contests as he ran out of money and organization, finishing second to the eventual nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain. He stayed out of the race in 2012, focusing on speech-making, book writing, and television commentary.
On NBC's Meet the Press earlier Sunday, Huckabee said, "It's pretty evident I'm leaning in the direction" of a second campaign.
The book, Huckabee said, focuses on what he sees as the "disconnect" between the cultural bubbles of Washington, New York, and Los Angeles, and the rest of the U.S., or "Bubble-ville vs. Bubba-ville."
He criticizes the Obamas for letting their daughters, Sasha and Malia, listen to Beyoncé lyrics that Huckabee considers trashy, and he stirred up a kerfuffle with the suggestion that Beyonce's husband, the rapper Jay-Z, was "pimping" her.
A Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register Iowa Poll taken in early October found Huckabee was viewed favorably by six in 10 Iowa Republicans who plan to attend the 2016 caucuses, but he trailed Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Carson, and 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, who is considering a third try at the White House.
Miriam Fox, who was at the church to meet Huckabee, said she likes his "rock-solid values," honesty, and warmth. "But as governor [of Arkansas] he spent a lot and wasn't as conservative as he said he was, and that concerns me," said Fox, 47, a neurology technician at a Des Moines hospital.
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's "last name would be polarizing," she said, while Romney is old news and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio favors "amnesty" for illegal immigrants.
Fox said she might even support Gov. Christie. "He has this passion," she said. "He doesn't back down from what he thinks is right. He's also realistic, not promising pie in the sky. It's a 50-50 country, half conservative and half liberal. He seems to know that he's not going to win everything."
Jim Borwey, a state worker, was collecting names and contact information for what he hopes will be the Huckabee 2016 campaign. "He's rock-solid on the social issues" and supports a flat income tax, Borwey said.
"We supported Santorum last time," Borwey, 56, said. "We held off a long, long time until we were sure Huckabee was not getting in."
On the ISU football, Amann had penned a couple of encouraging Bible verses for his friend. One of them was Proverbs 21: 31: "The horse is made ready for the battle, but victory rests with the Lord."
A rough exegesis? Run, Huck, run.