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Not well known, but not afraid to speak up

Janet Huckabee is one of the only candidates' spouses with experience running for office. She says it taught her a lot.

January 08, 2008|Joe Mathews | Times Staff Writer

MANCHESTER, N.H. — As the Mike Huckabee campaign prepared to air a television advertisement attacking Mitt Romney in the last days before the Iowa caucuses, one crucial player argued strenuously against the spot. Her name was Janet Huckabee.

Mike Huckabee would eventually announce at a news conference that he was overruling most of his advisors and would not air the ad. He described this as an act of conscience, but he was also bowing to the wishes of his wife of 33 years.

"I told him, 'I don't feel comfortable with you doing this,' " she said in an interview. "I kind of always knew he'd come to his senses."

In the Republican presidential contest, Janet Huckabee is at once the least-known of the candidates' wives, and perhaps the most politically experienced. She and President Clinton, the husband of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, share the distinction of being the only spouses on either side of the race who have run for office themselves.

Janet Huckabee lost a bid to be Arkansas secretary of state in 2002, even as her husband, on the same ticket, won reelection. She and her opponent engaged in negative attacks, and the campaign left scars, by her own account. She says she learned from the experience, and now appears to be applying those lessons behind the scenes.

Aides say she is one of the most effective and determined fundraisers in a campaign that is short of money. Her husband has described her, along with national chairman Ed Rollins and campaign manager Chip Saltsman, as his closest advisors in a campaign that has fewer executive staff than its rival camps.

Her role on the campaign trail, while small, has been growing. Janet Huckabee, who is on leave from an emergency-management job at the American Red Cross, has begun introducing her husband at campaign events, and at one Des Moines rally, even danced with Saltsman while her husband played with a band. When Mike Huckabee jetted to California to appear on "The Tonight Show" hours before the Iowa caucuses, Janet Huckabee filled in for him at campaign events.

About 2 inches taller than her husband and more athletic, Janet Huckabee cuts a nontraditional figure. When Mike Huckabee works crowds, she sometimes helps clear a path. She speaks with a stronger Arkansas twang than her husband, and more colloquially. At one rally, she described the prospect of becoming first lady as "too cool."

For the most part, she prefers to be out of camera range. When Huckabee gave his victory speech Thursday night in Iowa, the woman behind him in the TV images was not his wife but Gena Norris, the model-actress wife of celebrity Huckabee endorser Chuck Norris.

"I'm not the belle of the ball," Janet Huckabee said.

The Huckabees met in junior high school in their hometown of Hope, Ark. Mike Huckabee likes to talk about how he was raised by poor parents in a small rented house, but Janet Huckabee had it worse. Her father abandoned the family; her mother raised Janet and four siblings.

Mike Huckabee has written that he was attracted to her integrity and her physicality. Janet Huckabee, at a sliver under 5 foot 10, was an all-district basketball player and track star who competed fiercely. "My coach used to say I'd argue with a fence post," she recalled.

They married at 18 and went off to college, but within a year she was diagnosed with cancer of the spine. Doctors told her she might not walk again. After surgery and radiation therapy, she recovered.

In Arkansas, she became well-known for her physical courage. During her time as first lady, she tracked bears, hunted rattlesnakes, jumped out of a plane, Jet-Skied the Arkansas River and, on a lark, did some bungee jumping.

In 2002, Republican Party officials, without a candidate for secretary of state, asked her to run. "I wanted people to have a choice," she said. She started behind in the polls and stayed there. "She was very negative and criticized me personally because she didn't have a public record," recalls her opponent, Charlie Daniels, who attacked her as well. Janet Huckabee says the race was very difficult, in part because she and her husband were on the same ballot.

The Huckabees are a tightknit clan, and the presidential campaign is a family affair. Two of the couple's three children, in addition to their daughter-in-law, have been paid employees of the campaign, according to Federal Election Commission filings. Janet Huckabee has given touches of home to the campaign bus, even bringing the family's three dogs on board.

Mike Huckabee likes to tell audiences that he enjoys hearing his wife talk about him on the stump, because she is never so kind at home. The former Arkansas governor says his rivals are wasting their money on negative ads because "my wife will tell you for free that I'm a bum."

This is not entirely a joke, friends of the couple say. His talking, for instance, sometimes seems to try her patience.

"I think sometimes literally we talk things to death. I say: 'Let's quit talking about it. Let's go do it,' " she said.

Shortly after Mike Huckabee announced he was pulling the Romney ad, she retreated to what she thought was the quiet of the campaign's Des Moines headquarters.

Instead, she was nearly run over by a half-dozen cameramen who were interviewing her husband. She made an athletic leap to get out of the way, and shook her head.

"I thought this area was supposed to be private," she said.

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