Mike Huckabee: Front-Runner Q&A

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Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee

BETWEEN INDIANOLA AND PERRY, IOWA — On a bus ride between campaign events Saturday, Republican candidate Mike Huckabee spoke with TIME's Michael Scherer and the Washington Post's Perry Bacon Jr., about the state of his Iowa campaign, his recent foreign policy flubs on the stump, and how he wants to change the Republican Party.

Selected portions of the interview, which ran nearly 40 minutes, follow below. The interview began with a question about a number of minor gaffs Huckabee has made in recent weeks, including not reading about the new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran a day after it was released.

TIME: A lot of these little tiny things that have come up, the foreign policy slip-ups, including the NIE from a few weeks back, how much of it is a result of not having the backroom staff that some of the other campaigns have?
A lot of it is the result of us campaigning 20 hours a day. I mean, you know, we had to just scratch and scrape for every inch of the territory that we got. So much of it was that we literally were having to just do as many events as possible. Now we are able to be a little more disciplined and focused on the events that we do.

That particular day [when the NIE came out], which I thought it was a little bit ridiculous to talk about, the report came out at 10 in the morning and it was like five in the afternoon. [Editor's note: The National Intelligence Estimate report stating that Iran was not pursuing nuclear weapons came out Monday Dec. 3. Huckabee was first asked about it in the evening of Dec. 4] Most of the reporters in that room had been with me all day. They knew where I was. And they knew that there hadn't really been an opportunity for a whole lot of discussion. We learned an important lesson. Don't make any assumptions. So we are being much more careful now. If there is some breaking news, I am being pulled out of events to be sure that I know what may be happening. Otherwise, I wouldn't have known, because I simply wasn't taking a break to go to the bathroom.

TIME: Some specific [policy] proposals still haven't been fleshed out. If you are talking about arts and music education, for instance, or rehabilitating prisoners, or promoting preventative health care, are there budget numbers attached to that? Are those things you have begun to think through?
I have started to think through. We have people that are beginning to develop some of the nuts and bolts. But the most important thing I needed to do at this point is to give people the conceptual ideas of where I would lead this country. It's really a bit premature to start getting down deep into the weeds, talking about, here's what the chart looks like, here's where the budget numbers are going to be.

Again, most voters, that's not the question they are going to ask, nor do they even necessarily believe that if I gave them those numbers that they mean a whole lot at this stage, because we have to look at where the federal budget will be at that particular point in time. I have run enough campaigns as a governor to know that you can get out there and make all these talks about how many state employees you are going to reduce, and how many different things. That's all fine and good, but when it comes down to it, you are going to sit down with a real budget, with real numbers, and some real issues, and that is when you are going to flesh that out.

Now in the course of a campaign, if this thing gets into the spring and into the summer, then sure there is going to have to be a lot more specific proposals that are outlined, but quite frankly, even those, they are going to be more for you guys [journalists], than they are the general public. In all the time I ran for office in Arkansas, I don't remember anybody ever coming up and saying, 'Okay, I want your pie chart. I want to see that.' That's inside baseball stuff. What they really want to know is what direction are you going.

Washington Post: Mitt Romney has this long list of foreign policy advisors. He has this long list of policy advisors for education, tax policy, etc. Are you saying in this nomination process you don't plan on having a long list?

No, what I am saying is we have a growing list of those people. And that becomes an increasingly important function. Let's face it, from January of this year up until now, the biggest challenge I had was not do I have a 300-page Social Security reform program. If I had, would you have cared? Would you have written about it? No. Fred Thompson has got one. How many people know what it says? He spent a lot of time and money developing it. My question is: If he has got it now, how come he didn't have it as a U.S. Senator?

I can hire people, once I raise the money, who can come up with all kinds of proposals. That's fine. That's good. But the real question is: Am I going to be able to be a leader? You know there is a difference between a leader and a manager. A leader is the one who can outline the broad vision and the direction, and say here's where we are going to go, here's why we need to go there, and here's how we are going to get there. A manager is the one who actually gets up under the hood and tunes the carburetor. The question is, do you want your President to be a leader or a manager? I think most people elect their president to be a leader, not a manager.

Washington Post: Was there a moment in the last couple days when you thought, we can't keep letting [Romney] attack us, without responding?
Yeah, there was. I can tell you exactly when it was. When we saw the attacks on McCain in New Hampshire, I just said, you know, this is getting out of hand. I am kind of sensitive about that, and I know it may sound silly. I don't mind contrasting, my views and McCain's views. I think that is fine.

TIME: You are sensitive about what?
I just think to attack John McCain — who I just respect as a very decent human being and an honorable American hero — I just think he deserves more respect than that. I knew [Romney] was being dishonest with my record. And I realized now he is being dishonest with McCain's. He is being dishonest with Giuliani's.

You know, if you think through the campaign, you don't see Giuliani coming after me, and hitting me. I have watched him on television. People are putting the bait in front of him. He doesn't take it. Same thing with McCain. He is thrown the bait all the time. He rises above it. I just felt like the attacks we were getting, both by Club for Growth and by Romney, the mail pieces, and then the last straw for me was seeing the ads that he ran on McCain. I saw them [Friday]. And I just said, 'You know, this is just not right.' He's not telling us why he should be President. He is just beating up every other person on the stage.

TIME: Can you walk through, after you leave Iowa, what challenges you are going to face in the next few states, what strengths you have in New Hampshire and South Carolina, and what the expectations should be of your campaign leaving Iowa?
[Doing well in Iowa] should help up in New Hampshire. We understand that geographically there are three candidates that ought to do better than us in New Hampshire. John McCain is a very familiar product there, well-respected, strong organization, he's been running there for 12 years, I guess, or at least 10 years. So he has been there a while. It's not new.

Mitt Romney has a vacation home there, he has governed next door, so obviously a close connection. And Giuliani is not very far away in New York and the northeast, so that's why if we are in fourth place, we are still in the game. Maybe we will do better than that, but we may not. I think we have good solid support in New Hampshire with the people who are supporting us. But clearly it is not as widespread.

A lot of people have said, well it's because of the religious issue. I think that is totally wrong. It's not it at all. It has to do not with fewer evangelicals in New Hampshire as much as it has to do with more people familiar with other candidates, whose campaigns they became far more familiar with sooner than mine, and have stayed with those candidates.

Now as far as South Carolina, we are leading there substantially. We are actually in some polls either leading or close to first place in Michigan. And in Florida, we are leading there. So if we come out of Iowa strong and essentially just do OK in New Hampshire, just hang in there, I think we will do well in Michigan. Anything there is better than expected. If we can take South Carolina and then hopefully do great in Florida, one or two, I think we are definitely on the way.

TIME: On Thursday you are going to be going up against a very well funded and very professional [Romney] organization to get people out [to vote]. How important are the informal and formal networks in this state, the Bible study groups? How important is it that people are talking about you in church?

The honest answer is I don't know. I just honestly don't know. I hope it's important. I hope there is this vast network of people talking to each other. It would be very helpful if it is. But whether or not that is going on, and whether it will happen this week, I won't know until Thursday night. It would be a great boost for us. So far the campaign has been largely energized by a grass roots, as true a grass roots as I think has ever been witnessed in this country.

I mean you look at our numbers nationally, not just in Iowa — nationally. There is really no comparison for the phenomena of that kind of grassroots upsurge over such a short period of time. And most of it is all the viral marketing that has happened over the Internet, as people have contacted their friends, and things have been shared and passed, and it has just built. Because otherwise there was no reason. It's not like we have staff out there ginning up phone calls, interest and pushing people towards us. It's been a natural phenomenon. So it does have the potential to be a political landmark that I think could be very significant, and help shape the future of presidential politics in a very positive way."

TIME: Your stump speech, especially in these closing weeks, has really been focused on an economic populist message. It seems to me very similar, if not in policy at least in rhetoric, to John Edwards' message. What do you think about his Two America approach?

It's not that I see two Americas. I see one America. But I see some people in America disconnected from some of their fellow Americans. That's not necessarily two Americas. It's that I do think there are people who just are not fully aware of how some of their fellow Americans are struggling. That's what I sense. If our party does not begin to understand and reflect the concerns of those fellow Americans in this one America, I think we are really hurting ourselves in the long term.

Washington Post: Have the last six years been evidence of [that lack of concern]?
It's not the Bush Administration. Not at all. I think that would be a very unfair thing to put on the Bush Administration. In fact, I think in many ways the Bush Administration ought to be commended because they tried to reach out through faith-based initiatives. There were many, many plusses. No Child Left Behind — the concept of that really was to say every child matters. There are kids out there underperforming. There is a huge achievement gap between African-American kids and upper-middle-class white kids. I think the Bush Administration ought to get some credit. They get enough blame for stuff. On this point give them some credit. They saw that. And the President's initiatives, especially in those early years, were very much focused on trying to recognize that there are challenges.

To me, [there] was a seminal moment, in Dearborn, when we were at that debate, the CNBC-MSNBC debate. And the question was asked, 'How do you think the economy is doing?' And down the line Republicans go, 'Ah, it's going great, just terrific.' They are all quoting RNC talking points — 22 consecutive quarters of great economic growth — telling us all these things that are right off the page. And they came to me, and I took a lot of criticism for it, but I said, 'Well, for a lot of guys on this stage the economy is doing really well. But there are a lot of guys out there driving the cabs, handling the bags and serving the food at the tables, and they have a very different picture about how this economy is doing.' And I think that is where I sense the disconnect. I wonder sometimes: 'Did you talk to the guy? Have you ever sat down and not just said, 'Hi, how you doing? Thanks for coming.' But have you had the conversation —'Tell me what you are worried about?' That's the question you ask. What are you worried about? And it's not so much what is happening in Iran. That's important to him. He may not understand every day how important that is. But you know what is important to him? If gas is $3 a gallon, can he afford to put enough of it in his tank to get him to and from work, every day this week? That's real. That's real for him."

TIME: If you were a Democrat, and I posted this, would [Republicans] put out a press release saying you were engaging in class warfare right now?
It's not class warfare. It's absolutely irresponsible if the Republicans do not recognize all of the people of this country and the struggles that they have. What I am saying is that our party needs to change, and understand that it can be — it should be, it will be — the party of every American. But it can't be if it only assumes that the real problems only exist inside a certain segment of the spectrum.