WASHINGTON -- Conference calls do not a candidacy make -- or unmake. Nevertheless, I just hung up on one featuring Mike Huckabee that did nothing to contradict the rapidly-gathering conventional wisdom that he is not running again in 2012. If he's playing possum down there in Little Rock (or up in New York, where he was calling from), he's doing it almost too convincingly.
The ostensible purpose of the call was to announce the launch of a grueling, 41-city tour for "A Simple Government," his earnest new book on the issues that we confront as a nation.
But the 2012 strategic subtext was quickly brought to the surface by a question from redoubtable Tom Beaumont, the chief political reporter of The Des Moines Register. He wanted to know why -- especially since the Iowa caucuses were what launched the former Arkansas governor to prominence in 2008 -- Huckabee had "so little on the ground here."
Huckabee didn't dispute it. He pointed out that he would be in Iowa next week on his book tour, and he insisted that he still had plenty of time to gear up in time to take part in the GOP straw poll in August. Voters don't really decide until a week before the caucuses, he said. But he conceded that "others are spreading their nets in Iowa carefully," and were ahead of him in money and staff there and elsewhere.
More important, in answer to this and other questions, Huckabee sounded like a wary, skeptical guy who didn't have the stomach for the grueling humiliations of a presidential run. That's a normal reaction for a sane human being, but the kiss of death for someone hoping to be taken seriously by the donors and strategists and writers who make up the boiler room of politics.
He said that he doesn't like and isn't good at asking donors for contributions, and that he was infuriated by the often substance-free 11 debates he took part in during the 2008 campaign. "In all of those debates there wasn't a single question about education, and only one about health care -- which turned out to be the most important topic," he said.
"I love to campaign," he added, "but I'm talking about the day-to-day rhythm" of meeting voters and discussing issues. "What I don't like is sitting in some office on the telephone making cold calls to people I don't know and begging for money. That is not my forte."
Organizationally, Huckabee said he had been "listening to operatives," which he made sound about as enjoyable as cold calls. He said that he was wary of "weather-worn" consultants who had done campaigns, and added, almost wistfully, that what he loved about his 2008 effort was that it attracted "idealistic, young and energetic" kids who "didn't know what they could not do."
Now, as an established figure with a TV and radio show and a national profile, he didn't sound certain that he could attract such a cadre or run such a campaign again in 2012.
The book, he implied, would provide substantive answers to questions he highly doubted that reporters and debate hosts would ever ask, should he in fact decide to make another try.
As he moves about the country, he said, he will do book events but also scout out potential donors who would both write a check themselves and commit to asking 50 others to do the same. He didn't sound all that eager about it and said, rather bitterly, that he had discovered last time that some people make financial promises they don't keep.
In all, Huckabee convinced me that his distaste and hesitation were real, not primarily strategic.
He has some credibility when he speaks, in part because he is a likable, fairly open guy. He is more prickly and competitive then he lets on -- I saw that in 2008 -- but he is more approachable than most of his buttoned-up colleagues. He was widely adjudged to be a pretty good governor, and behind his corny style is an administrator who knows how government works, or doesn't work, at least at the state level.
Plus, he's not a bad R&B bass guitar player, judging from the times I watched him play in music stores around Iowa. "That was therapy," he said on Monday's call.
He portrayed himself on the call as a guy who would need even more "therapy" to give it another go. It was as though he was asking himself: do I really want to do this? Really?
After about a half-hour of the call, there were no more questions from the few reporters who evidently were on it. Perhaps the empty queue was a sign of what the conventional wisdom is. Or should be.
The hostess asked one last time for more questions, and you could almost hear the crickets chirp.
"Hm, a pregnant pause," Huckabee observed. And then he and the rest of us hung up.
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