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For Mike Huckabee, Iowa holds the possibility of political redemption

Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee speaks during the second day of the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Gaylord International Hotel and Conference Center March 7, 2014 in National Harbor, Maryland.
Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

SIOUX CITY, Iowa -- It was just another routine photo-op at a Republican field office Tuesday morning until Mike Huckabee decided to improvise.

In a cheeky attempt to bring himself level with Cody Hoefert -- the 7-foot-tall co-chairman of the Iowa Republican Party -- Huckabee pulled up a chair and began to climb atop it.

He didn't have to complete the physical joke to get the laughs he was looking for from the group of gray-haired volunteers who had assembled for his appearance with Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst.

"Golly!" the 5-11 Huckabee marveled. "I've never felt like a shrimp like this before."

This was vintage Huckabee: the born showman and 59-year-old class clown, whose brand of innocuous humor and deep-dimpled affability made him such a hit during his 2008 presidential campaign in this staunchly conservative stretch of the nation's first voting state.

"People here in Iowa, obviously, love him," Ernst said of Huckabee. "He is such a genuine man. ... Everybody here knows him."

Indeed, memories of Huckabee's up-from-obscurity win in 2008 remain fresh for many of the older, conservative voters who still dominate the Republican caucuses.

But outside of Iowa, other political observers tend to forget about him. National pollsters do it every time they neglect to include his name in their 2016 surveys, even though Huckabee polls consistently in the first tier when he is listed as an option.

With the unofficial race for the White House set to kick off the day after the November midterms, it is not Huckabee but rather the younger, shinier conservative leaders like Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio who have drawn the lion's share of scrutiny on the GOP side.

The reasons are evident why Huckabee's potential reemergence is being underplayed in the national discourse. First and foremost is the general suspicion that he's not sincere when professing to consider a second presidential run.

After all, this line of thinking goes, he was saying the very same things four years ago.

Back then, just as many suspected, he decided not to trade in his rewarding contract with The Fox News Channel, and the enviable lifestyle that accompanies it, for the uncertain and grueling slog of another national campaign.

Now, Huckabee is an even wealthier man, and he is clearly still enjoying himself.

The formerly obese Arkansan, who once documented his loss of more than 110 pounds in a book titled "Quit Digging Your Grave With a Knife and Fork," has put back on a significant amount of weight.

Bolstering the notion that Huckabee will sit out 2016 is the perception that his time in the national limelight has come and gone.

For a Republican Party desperate to rebrand itself and develop its reach in national elections, the former Arkansas governor -- who last held office nearly eight years ago -- can seem anachronistic in comparison to the aforementioned first-term senators, who have been elbowing for early position to become the next GOP standard-bearer.

But as he stumped for Ernst in conservative western Iowa, it was abundantly clear that Huckabee's clout far surpasses that of a political nostalgia act.

Among the conservative rank-and-file here, he is every bit a man of the moment.

Why is that?

It's because Huckabee isn't just a familiar face from a few years back. Instead, he is the jovial and charismatic friend that loyal Fox News viewers welcome into their living rooms each and every week.

Now in its seventh year on the air, "Huckabee"--which combines political commentary, celebrity interviews and musical variety--is a weekend stalwart for the highest-rated cable news network.

New episodes and reruns occupy a total of four hours of valuable airtime on Saturday and Sunday nights, providing the show's host with hundreds of hours of free advertising that hits some of the most reliable Republican voters.

It's the kind of media exposure that any of the more frequently talked about GOP contenders can only dream of.

Consider the manner in which an array of Iowa Republican activists and volunteers greeted Huckabee as he made the rounds with Ernst.

"I watch you about three times every weekend!" one white-haired woman raved as she embraced the politician turned TV personality.

"And why not?" the once and potentially future candidate shot back.

"We really watch your show all the time," a heavy-set man, his beaming wife by his side, told Huckabee during a stop in Council Bluffs later in the day as the former governor held up the man's camera and posed for a full-service selfie.

No one is more aware of the value that this instant familiarity with core GOP voters would bring to a second presidential bid than the prospective candidate himself.

As a driver shuttled him between events, Huckabee told RealClearPolitics that his work on Fox has put him in a "very good place to be" politically as a self-imposed decision date looms in the early spring of next year.

"When I came up here eight years ago, nobody knew who I was," he said. "I had to spell my name. They didn't recognize me, and that was true all over the country. And now I come back, and I've been in these people's homes every week."

The 2016 Republican field figures to include several candidates who enjoy and excel at retail politicking. But few, if any, of the likely GOP contenders enjoy the kind of deep-seated emotional bond that saturates Huckabee's grip-and-grin sessions.

During his latest visit to Iowa, people passed him hand-written notes and whispered heartfelt encouragement.

One suspenders-clad man wiped away tears as he asked Huckabee to consider throwing his hat in the ring once again.

"I've admired you for years," another woman told him. "Maybe you could go for president again."

"We'll see," Huckabee shot back. "I've done dumber things."

***

Though he clearly spoke in jest, the suggestion that leaving Fox would be an imprudent move is not without some merit.

Huckabee recently inked another three-year deal with the network--a contract that includes a clause allowing either side to terminate the agreement if circumstances change in the coming months.

But for a working-class kid with a gift for gab, Huckabee is living the kind of life he scarcely could have dreamed of while growing up in Hope, Ark.

And nothing quite matches the platform for guaranteed influence and riches that Fox News provides.

Asked about his decision-making process this time around, Huckabee sounded conflicted.

"I've got four grandkids, and I really care what's going to happen to them," he said. "If I were to create an exploratory committee or tell people that I'm going to run, obviously, I've just crossed a threshold, and I'm done [at Fox]. So I've got to be very thoughtful about this. I can't do it lightheartedly. I can't put my toe in the water. I jump in the deep end from Day One or I don't do it."

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    Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.