Hillary Rodham Clinton starred in two presidential campaign launches this week. Neither was her own.
The leading Democrat was featured prominently by two Republican contenders, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former technology executive Carly Fiorina, whose road to relevancy in 2016 may be inextricably tied to the former first lady. As other Republicans begin to jab each other, both Fiorina’s and Huckabee’s nascent campaigns are based on the notion that they are uniquely positioned to defeat Clinton.
Both may be overstating their cases.
Huckabee didn’t explicitly mention Clinton on Tuesday even as he began a second presidential bid in the hometown he shares with her husband, Bill Clinton, the 42nd president. Yet the strategy was clear, as Huckabee and his senior aides cast him as a conservative populist outsider and the only Republican to have successfully taken on the Clinton political machine.
The opening frames of Huckabee’s campaign video featured a black-and-white photo of the Clintons. In his speech, Huckabee recalled “challenging the deeply entrenched political machine that ran this state.” Later, he took a swipe at Hillary Clinton, noting that he doesn’t “have a global foundation” to help start his campaign.
It was much the same for Fiorina, the only high-profile woman seeking the Republican presidential nomination, as she stepped into the presidential race the day earlier. Before appearing in her own announcement video, Fiorina began with a few moments of Clinton declaring her candidacy.
“I would be running for president regardless of who the nominee on the Democratic side was, but really the point in highlighting her is that she is the personification of the professional political class,” said Fiorina, a former Hewlett-Packard CEO who has never held elected office. “She and her husband have been in politics their entire lives.”
Fiorina, who ran for a Senate seat in California and lost to incumbent Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, emerged as one of the GOP’s most aggressive Clinton critics in the weeks leading up to this week’s announcement. She remains relatively unknown among the broader electorate, yet her aides suggest Fiorina has the ability to talk about issues and go after Clinton in ways her male colleagues cannot.
“It is clear that, in sharp contrast to Hillary, people see Carly as genuine, authentic and trustworthy,” Sarah Isgur Flores, Fiorina’s deputy campaign manager, said in a campaign memo.
Huckabee’s Clinton focus is more personal. His introductory campaign video is titled “Nailed Shut,” a reference to an office door being sealed off to him the day before he was sworn in as lieutenant governor in 1993 — a story he tells to illustrate what he was up against with the Democratic power structure in Little Rock.
Clinton was governor until the end of 1992, before moving to the White House. His Democratic successor was caught in an ethics scandal and Huckabee ascended to the governor’s office.
“There was a Democrat machine and (Bill) Clinton was the head of that machine,” said Arkansas Republican Chairman Doyle Webb.
The man Huckabee beat remembers it differently. Now a Little Rock attorney, Nate Coulter said the Clintons didn’t campaign for him. “They had things that were, frankly, more important to them and the republic,” he said.
Campaign materials that Huckabee aides distributed to reporters Tuesday framed Coulter as a Clinton stand-in. He had worked as an assistant legal counsel in the governor’s office before Clinton was elected president.
“It’s a useful national narrative” for Huckabee to run as a Clinton rival, said Janine Parry, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas. “But in the state it seems like a stretch.”
Perhaps most accurately, Huckabee is simply one of several Republican governors in the South who still had to deal with Democratic legislative majorities as the region evolved from a Democratic stronghold to near complete Republican control now, eight years after Huckabee left office.
Jonathan Barnett, a former Arkansas legislator who first met Huckabee in high school, noted that Huckabee’s rise is linked directly to Clinton. The 1993 special election for lieutenant governor came about because Jim Guy Tucker ascended to the chief executive’s job when Clinton left Little Rock for the Oval Office.
“Bill Clinton becoming president opened up a lot of doors for Mike Huckabee,” said Barnett, a Republican. “How about that?”
Still, Webb, the party chairman, says, “You can’t argue there wasn’t a Democrat machine in the state.”
And, perhaps even more noteworthy, Huckabee and Bill Clinton certainly share a political style built on connecting with working-class voters and small-town conservatives, which both men credit to their formative years in small-town Arkansas.
“I still believe in a place called Hope,” Clinton said in a biographical video played at the 1992 Democratic National Convention and still played at small museum in his hometown.
On Tuesday, Huckabee dusted off his own homage to Hope, repeatedly promising to take Americans “from hope to higher ground.”
Republished with permission of the Associated Press.