Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee is tickled by the rampant speculation that he will seek the presidency. Officially, he's "keeping all options open," which is another way of saying he's trying to figure out how much money he could raise. If Huckabee does run, he would have to find a way--as Governor Bill Clinton did in 1992--to divert attention from some of the state's dreary realities, like a high poverty rate, relatively large numbers of unimmunized toddlers and poor ACT scores. Still, like Clinton, Huckabee has approached his state's troubles with energy and innovation, and he has enjoyed some successes. Most notably, he created ARKids First, which offers health insurance to poor children and has helped reduce the percentage of uninsured Arkansans under 18 to 9% in 2003-04, compared with 12% for the nation and 21% for neighboring Texas. Since he became Governor in July 1996, welfare rolls have declined by nearly half, and last year the state's economy grew 4.4%, beating the national average of 4.2%.
But Huckabee, 50, is a good Governor, not just for what he has done but also for who he has become, personally and politically. He is literally half the man he used to be, having lost 110 lbs. after learning in 2002 that he has diabetes and suffering chest pains a year later. He now exercises with martial regularity. More important, but less noted, has been Huckabee's political transformation. In his early years as Lieutenant Governor and then in the top job, he offered little more than anti-Clinton resentment and capering populism; in 1996 he warned of "environmental wackos who ... want to tell us what kind of deodorant we can use." Huckabee is now a mature, consensus-building conservative who earns praise from fellow Evangelicals and, occasionally, liberal Democrats.
In 1997 he surprised some Republicans by introducing ARKids First, and a year later he decided that all the state's proceeds from the tobacco industry lawsuit settlement should go to health education, antismoking campaigns and--get this--Medicaid expansion. Partly because of opposition from his own party, Huckabee's tobacco plan got bottled up in the Arkansas house. So he put it before voters, and the referendum passed, 64% to 36%, in 2000. Huckabee also helped persuade voters to increase their own gas taxes to fund long-overdue highway repairs in 1999. The previous Governor, Jim Guy Tucker, Clinton's Democratic successor, had tried and failed to pass a highway program.
Spreading the word about his newfound health is Huckabee's top mission now. This summer he began a one-year chairmanship of the National Governors Association, from which he has launched a Healthy America project to encourage fitness. He believes that because his own gourmandise was so legendary--he used to eat entire bowls of buttermilk dressing with his salads--he can persuade fellow bubbas to exercise and eat better. "I cannot completely describe just how contemptuous I was of exercise and those who engaged in it regularly," he writes in his book Quit Digging Your Grave with a Knife and Fork. In May he ran a marathon.