But the question is, is the Republican primary going to be about Obama or is it going to be a demolition derby in which the candidates tear each other apart? If the field runs against Obama and unites as a field against Obama, they win, and there's a good chance he'll be a one-term president. If it's like it was last time, where everyone's trying to out-conservative each other, play toward [advocacy organizations], it will be a disaster.
NJ Whom do you blame for the tone of the 2008 primary?
HUCKABEE I don't think it was any one person. It was a combination of some of the candidates, some of the consultants, and a media that thrives on conflict and the process rather than the policies. And part of my decision on whether to run hinges on whether I think we can have a legitimate, honest, responsible debate about issues, or will we spend all our time bickering about the process?
In the first 11 debates, nobody asked a question about education, and there was only one question about health care. In 11 debates. Basically, we argued the Iraq war, and with the exception of Ron Paul, who had a dissenting opinion on that, it would have been easier to say: "OK, here's the Republican position on Iraq, and we'll now give 30 seconds to Mr. Paul to present his views, and let's move on and talk about other things."
I was trying to talk about the economy when nobody else wanted to talk about it, I predicted in September 2007 [that] we were headed for some serious downturns, and I was pilloried for that in The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere. I was accused of everything from being a John Edwards populist to other crazy things.
It's very distasteful to go through that when we were trying to have an honest discussion about the issues, about health care, about our nation's crumbling infrastructure, about foreign policy. I was saying way back [that] the real threat was Pakistan. We needed to spend more time and energy on that. There were so many issues, but the questions were always the same. How much money have you raised? What's the size of your field staff in Iowa? And they'd take a decision from your past as an executive, take it out of context, it becomes the "gotcha" game. You made thousands of decisions as chief of staff of a state, so let's take two or three. That's what I've got to decide. Is it going to be that kind of primary again? It's absurd. And part of it is uncontrollable, in the blogosphere, on the Internet people can say anything. It can be completely wrong, grossly untrue, and it can be picked up by what should be responsible journalists, who shouldn't either entertain it or jump on it. Sometimes it's repeated as "Mike Huckabee today is saying he did not, in fact, run over a child's foot." It's just ridiculous.
You're running for president because you want to talk about very specific ideas that you think will change the country and the world. Instead, you're stuck answering things that are absolutely inane and have nothing to do with running the country.
NJ It sounds like you don't necessarily want to go through that again. Right after the election in 2008, while talking to a group of religious conservatives, you said that you would have won the primary if you'd had a little more infrastructure and a little more money early on. You said a few days ago that if you were jumping in, you would wait until later in the game this time around. Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, and Newt Gingrich have all been in the key early states for months now. Do you have any concern that you might be waiting too long? When is too late in terms of being able to put together the type of campaign you would need and the type of people you would want to be working with, who might be saying, "I love Mike Huckabee, but I need to commit to a campaign soon"?
HUCKABEE In a nation of 302 million people, it's a little absurd to think there's only 25 to 30 people who can actually help you get there. Most of the people who end up being president are taken there by people who've never done it before. Just remember, whether it's Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, or Barack Obama, for that matter, whether there are a few lifers who have the right experience, a whole lot of people who become the major players nobody's ever heard of before, and sometimes the experienced people are losers. How many losing campaigns has Bob Shrum run? He has a record. But people keep hiring them. The two things I've got to work through: Is there a level of financial support that would give me more fuel than last time, and organizationally. I spent most of the last year campaigning for people in almost every state. My PAC was involved in 127 races, and we won 85 percent of them; it was a really good year. We have a lot of organizational infrastructure. I'm not as worried about that as I am the money. I do need to see [that] there would be a level of financial support that we would need to run a campaign and be truly competitive. Was financing a big issue for us four years ago? There's no doubt about that.
NJ Is there anybody who might run for president who would keep you out of the race, either because of that person's strength as a candidate or because you liked and respected him or her?
HUCKABEE If Jeb Bush wanted to jump in, I'd probably go help him. I love Jeb; I think he's brilliant. He was an excellent governor. I have the highest of admiration for him. He could certainly raise the money, and I think he'd clear the deck. I think there's a lot of very capable, qualified people, and some aren't the obvious ones. Nobody ever heard of me four years ago, and I ended up coming in second. Nobody expected that, and that's how things should be.
NJ Florida is considering resurrecting its early straw poll, possibly as early as in the late spring. Will you have made a decision by then, or would you sit that out? And might your Florida ties help you there?
HUCKABEE That seems awfully early to me. A lot of these polls are done as fundraisers, because they're good for the state party, not because they're good for the process. The Iowa straw poll is already really early. I'll tell you who it hurts the most. It hurts the people who are just getting started, candidates who don't yet have a strong organization, are still building, and don't have any name ID. It's not going to be very accurate. A candidate like me who has better name ID and is polling well might be in a better position, but it's not good for the process. It's utterly meaningless to have something that early. It would be a great fundraiser, but it gets a little out of control--it's not about electing a president, it's about using the election process.
NJ You stress fitness and have lost a lot of weight. You had a knee injury. How is it feeling, and how has it affected your fitness regime?
HUCKABEE I'm still having some issues with the knee, so I'm doing mostly the elliptical, the recumbent bike, and so on. It's not as thorough a workout as I've done. I'm not running marathons right now, unfortunately.