He heads off the issue with a story: "When I first started running for office, a lady asked me, 'Are you one of those narrow-minded Baptist ministers who think only Baptists will go to heaven?'" He replies, "Actually I'm more narrow than that. I don't think all the Baptists are going to make it."
His appeal prompts comparisons with another politician from Hope, Ark. Bill Clinton went off to Georgetown University, Yale Law School, and Oxford University. But Huckabee sank deep roots in the evangelical culture of the New South – and the vast Christian communications networks that shot up around it.
As a Southern Baptist, Huckabee grew up in a culture of moral absolutes, where issues such as the "inerrancy of the Bible" and the changing role of women stirred strong passions and hard sermons. Moreover, he came of age just as evangelical Christians began an alliance with the Republican Party.
Huckabee, who saw it all close up, would later take the connections and communications skills he honed in church life straight into politics.
The roots of faith
Huckabee was born in Hope, Ark., in 1955. His father, Dorsey, was a local fireman and a mechanic on his days off. His mother Mae's family was "one generation away from dirt floors and outdoor toilets," Huckabee says.
Like many families in town, his parents struggled to pay the rent, but encouraged him to do well in school. From Grade 2 on, he read every biography he could find. He learned to make lists – now one of many daily disciplines. In spare moments, he got a chuckle from classmates with impersonations of John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart. (Friends say he still does a spot-on Clinton.)
On his 11th Christmas, his parents gave him an electric guitar, which he practiced until his fingers bled. That guitar is now Exhibit A in his case for funding for the arts in public schools. Schools shouldn't just fund kids who run fast, jump high, or throw a ball, he said, as he became chairman of the Education Commission of the States in 2004. "It is critical to touch the talent of every kid, no matter what that talent is."