Interview with Jim Axelrod on CBS News' "Face the Nation"
AXELROD: Yesterday in Ames, Iowa, Republican voters there took part in the first critical test in the race for the White House--the Iowa straw poll. Rudy Giuliani and John McCain chose not to participate, though their names were on the ballot. More than 14,000 Iowans paid or let a campaign pay 35 bucks a pop for them to vote for a Republican presidential candidate. While the results of this straw poll are nonbinding, it is the first indicator of whether candidates can translate money and message into votes. And here's how they ran. As expected, Mitt Romney won with 32 percent of the vote. Mike Huckabee came in second with 18 percent, and Kansas Senator Sam Brownback third with 15 percent.
Joining us now from Little Rock, Arkansas, former Governor Mike Huckabee.
Good morning, Governor. Thanks for being with us.
HUCKABEE: Well, thank you, Jim. It was a great day for us in Iowa yesterday.
AXELROD: You know, in the run-up to the straw poll, I saw you quoted a couple different times saying if you were still a second-tier candidate after the straw poll, then you had a problem. So from where you're sitting this morning, you got a problem?
HUCKABEE: No, we're, we're in fact in the first tier, I think, by anybody's estimation. And here's why. It wasn't just that we surprised people with a second showing, it's that we did it with so few resources. I mean, this really was feeding the 5,000 with two fish and five loaves, an amazing kind of day for us. Because if you look at how much money some of the candidates spent to get the kind of votes they got, it's staggering. And we spent less than $100,000 on the straw poll. If we add everything we did over
the course of the last seven weeks in Iowa, that includes paper clips and gasoline for the vehicles to get us from place to place, our total expenses were 150,000. So when you look at what we were able to achieve, it was because people came to Ames to vote for us. And we had remarkable stories of people who came literally from all over America to work for us, and then people from Ames--one girl drove from Ames to Des Moines to get her driver license, because she forgot it, just so she could vote for me. I mean, it was that kind of--it was a movement, it wasn't just a, "Hey, we're giving out T-shirts.' I mean, we gave out watermelon from my hometown of Hope, Arkansas, which, of course, is worth driving to Ames for.
AXELROD: All right. On one--on one hand, you do this on a shoestring.
AXELROD: I get that. On the other hand, no Rudy Giuliani, no John McCain, no Fred Thompson. So let's put this in some kind of perspective in terms of moving yourself from the second tier to the first tier.
HUCKABEE: Well, it still matters that even though they say they didn't play, they were on the ballot. More importantly, what they did was forfeit the game, and if you forfeit, it's a loss. They knew they weren't going to do well with Iowa voters because Iowa voters tend to be far more conservative. I think they looked at the clear situation and the landscape in Iowa and decided, you know, if we go and play and do what we probably will do, it'll be embarrassing, so we'll just forfeit the game. I don't think it diminishes what the rest of us did. I think it only enhances it and shows that we play in middle America and they know they didn't.
AXELROD: I'm looking at something from yesterday that strikes me as the big takeaway that eight years ago this time there were 24,000 voters who participated in the straw poll. Yesterday, 14,000. That's 10,000 fewer Republican voters playing at this. What does that tell us about the state of the Republican Party?
HUCKABEE: It tells us more about how hot it was in Ames, Iowa. It was about 150 degrees, and I think that had a lot to do with it, the state fair going on.
AXELROD: Ten thousand fewer voters hot?
HUCKABEE: Well, I think so. I mean, it was--there were two things that were working. First of all, there was the state fair of Iowa, which is like most state fairs on steroids. I call it the Barry Bonds of state fairs. It's just unbelievable because we went to it on Friday. And then you do have a situation where the weather and, you know, right now this campaign has been dragging on much longer. So most people have sort of had a chance to take a look at some of the candidates. What we're still dealing with, though, is the universe of people who are willing to drive anywhere from an hour to four and a half hours away to come to Ames and spend all day in a hot sunshine--unless they're in one of the air-conditioned tents of the other candidates--you know, to vote in a--in a straw poll.
AXELROD: All right.l
HUCKABEE: I think it goes mean something.
AXELROD: Governor, let me ask you about the man who won yesterday's straw poll, Governor Romney. You said before he might be a risky standard bearer for the Republican Party because of his flip-flips. Is Mitt Romney a reliable conservative?
HUCKABEE: Well, you know, that's going to be for the voters to decide. And I want to be very clear. I didn't say that he was a flip-flopper. I never said that. What I said when asked did I believe his positions on abortion now which have changed? And I said, "I'm going to give him benefit of the doubt and accept him at his word.' Mitt is a good guy. He's got a wonderful family, and I said I'm not going to criticize him for where he stands now. But if we think that the Democrats won't come and use that against him, should he be the nominee, we're kidding ourselves. And so it was reported that I took a shot at him, and actually I thought I was being rather generously charitable to him.
AXELROD: You know, a lot of people, I'm sure, waking up this morning and looking at you and looking at the results and saying, "Who is this guy?' So an ordained Baptist minister, solid conservative credentials, a great personal story. You shed a ton of weight in this battle with diabetes.
AXELROD: Did you ever look at the national Republican front-runner, Rudy Giuliani, the pro-choice, pro-gun control, pro-gay rights Rudy Giuliani and say to yourself, "How come I haven't been able to get any traction?"
HUCKABEE: Well, I think yesterday showed that we are getting traction. And I've said a long time if we had just even a little bit of the resources some of these other guys have been able to accumulate, we'd be at the top of the field because of the message. You know, I'm one of the few Republican candidates that's having the courage to talk about how we need to really separate ourselves from being the Wall Street Republican crowd. We need to be the Main Street Republican crowd. We need to quit being a wholly-owned subsidiary of the major fund managers on Wall Street and start being more concerned about people out there in places like Iowa.
AXELROD: But let me give you a chance while we're sort of in this process of maybe introducing you to the American public in a way they haven't seen prior to the, to the debate--to the straw poll. Let me ask you this question, draw some contrasts between you, Mayor Giuliani, Senator McCain, Governor Romney. What makes Mike Huckabee different?
HUCKABEE: There are several things. First of all, experience. And I don't mean just governmental experience. That's important, 10 1/2 years as a governor in a state that's overwhelmingly Democrat. I became governor with a 90 percent Democrat legislature, the most lopsided in the country, and was able to get things done in the way of tax cuts and transportation to rebuild roads, some of the most significant education improvements and some innovative things, frankly, that many people wouldn't expect out of a Republican--a focus on music and art in education, health care renovations that have really, I think, driven national attention to Arkansas for being the only state in the country to reverse trends of childhood obesity. But in addition to that, I think a lot of it, Jim, is personal experience. You know, I didn't grow up a child of privilege. I grew up in a working class family and first male in my entire family lineage to even graduate high school.
I think I know something of the American dream and not only understand it but can communicate it and articulate it because I've lived it. And I can relate to a lot of people out there who just want to know that people who are elected, whether it's to the presidency or to the office of city council, understand what struggle is like, because a lot of Americans every day get up and they don't face the decision between are they going to vacation in the Caribbean or the Riviera. They face whether they can squeeze the handle on the gas pump and put enough fuel in the tank to get to work.
AXELROD: But I'm trying to figure out what your road from here might look like so that a year from now you are not only still in the race but accepting a nomination in Minneapolis. I'm having trouble this morning, despite your finish yesterday, seeing what it is that makes you different so that you vault ahead of some of the front-runners as the party has them right now.
HUCKABEE: Well, first of all, I think that Republicans look for a conservative who has had consistency in his principles, and there's not going to be any YouTube moments of me saying something substantially different on the sanctity of life or on the Second Amendment or on the role of traditional marriage.
AXELROD: And are Giuliani and Romney both open to that possibility?
HUCKABEE: Well, you know, do a Google search, and I'll let you find the YouTube moments. But I think people are looking for consistency. They're also looking for somebody who can communicate those views that won't come across as confrontational. This country is very polarized right now, no one can deny that, and I think Americans are looking for what I like to call vertical leadership rather than horizontal. The average person doesn't care whether we're left, right, liberal, conservative, Republican, Democrat as much as they care as to whether we would lead this country up rather than down. And that's vertical leadership, and I think that's what Republicans are going to have to have or we're going to get our heads handed to us next year in the elections.
AXELROD: We've got about just 30 seconds left. You're a strong supporter of the troop surge as well. Can you win as a strong supporter of the troop surge?
HUCKABEE: You know, I know that I can because the American people are going to see that the surge is beginning to have an impact. I mean, even The New York Times had to admit that things are beginning to improve. General Petraeus was given until September. We ought to give him that time frame. And certainly it's not pretty, it's not something we want to be there forever in, but we also know we've got a responsibility to do it right, so we don't have to do it over.
AXELROD: And we're going to leave it right there. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, congratulations on your finish in the straw poll yesterday. Thank you for being with us.
HUCKABEE: Thank you, Jim.
Mike Huckabee, Interview with Jim Axelrod on CBS News' "Face the Nation" Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/279172