LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Liane Hansen.
At least a dozen Republicans are considering a run for the White House in 2012. NPR is profiling some of them to find out what first sparked their interest in politics.
Today, NPR's Ina Jaffe has the story of former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, a former Southern Baptist minister who always considered politics his calling.
(Soundbite of a song, "Pour Some Sugar On Me")
DEF LEPPARD (Band): (Singing) Pour some sugar on me in the name of love...
INA JAFFE: Metal rockers Def Leppard on Mike Huckabee's TV show on Fox? Really? I mean, their 1980s hit "Pour Some Sugar On Me" isn't exactly about baking Christmas cookies.
DEF LEPPARD: (Singing) I'm hot, sticky sweet, from my head to my feet, yeah.
JAFFE: But the muscular musicians gave Mike Huckabee a chance to talk about fitness, one of his signature issues, and to rock out with them on his electric bass.
(Soundbite of music, "Pour Some Sugar On Me")
JAFFE: After all, he can't devote all his airtime to bashing President Obama. And the thing about Mike Huckabee? It seems he's always known how to put on a good show, even as a teenager with a part-time job at a radio station.
Mr. REX NELSON (Former Communications Director, Mike Huckabee): There was always, if you will, a star quality about Mike Huckabee.
JAFFE: Rex Nelson worked at the same Arkadelphia radio station when he was in high school and Huckabee was in college. He later covered him as a reporter, and then became Huckabee's communications director when he was governor.
Mr. NELSON: He was very ambitious. You knew he was going to be very successful at something, whether it was broadcasting or whether it was public relations, or whether it was politics.
JAFFE: Huckabee didn't respond to requests for an interview. But in his autobiography, "From Hope To Higher Ground," he writes that as a teenager he knew he would have a career in broadcasting and eventually run for public office. In Arkansas, young men with those interests frequently joined Boys State, a political training ground for teenagers. That's what Bill Clinton did. And a few years later so did Huckabee. That's where he met another kid, named Jonathan Barnett, who wanted to grow up to be Huckabee's campaign manager.
Mr. JONATHAN BARNETT (Former Campaign Manager, Mike Huckabee): I told Mike that I was going to run him for public office one of these days and get him elected. And I just thought he should be involved in public service.
JAFFE: Barnett did go on to chair Huckabee's first three campaigns, but that came years later. First, Huckabee became a full-time pastor. In his autobiography, he calls it a detour that led him down a road he wasn't planning to travel.
His first church was a small one in Pine Bluff. Then he moved to a larger congregation in Texarkana. And in both towns, he started church-based TV stations.
Hal Bass, dean of social sciences at Ouachita Baptist University, says they were just local stations.
Dr. HAL BASS (Dean, Social Sciences, Ouachita Baptist University): But Arkansas is a small state, and he was very well-known and very well-liked.
JAFFE: And in 1989, that led to Huckabee's first run for office, president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention.
Dr. BASS: He emerged as the choice of what I would call the moderate faction in Arkansas Baptist politics in that day and age.
JAFFE: Hal Bass was a state Baptist convention's parliamentarian then. He says Huckabee wasn't seen as a moderate himself, but his personal charm made him a compromise candidate in a fierce battle between moderate and conservative Southern Baptists for dominance in the church. Huckabee easily won the election.
Dr. BASS: He became - pretty much a household name.
JAFFE: But Huckabee also became frustrated with his role as a pastor. He's written that he felt more like the captain of the "Love Boat" than a serious spiritual leader. At the same time, it was difficult to risk his secure and comfortable life in the ministry to gamble on seeking political office.
Sally Brown was Huckabee's administrative assistant at Beech Street First Baptist Church in Texarkana.
Ms. SALLY BROWN (Former Administration Assistant, Beech Street First Baptist Church, Texarkana): He always felt that - when he started really praying about possibly going to politics, that we really needed people with strong morals, and a strong Christian background, to be leaders in our country.
JAFFE: So in 1992, in his very first race for public office, Huckabee took on a giant - popular incumbent U.S. Senator Dale Bumpers. And he lost - big-time. But that election also saw Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton elected to the White House - which meant that the lieutenant governor moved up to the governor's office, which meant there was a special election to find a new lieutenant governor.
And Rex Nelson says Huckabee was in a perfect position to win that race.
Mr. NELSON: Because he had just run a statewide campaign, already had a full organization in each of the state's 75 counties - already in place for that race.
JAFFE: So at the age of 37, Huckabee became Arkansas's lieutenant governor and was later elected governor twice. In 2008, he stunned nearly everyone with his victory in the Iowa caucuses. That was largely due to his support from Christian conservatives, and that support is partly responsible for his current standing at or near the top of the Republican presidential polls.
He hasn't announced yet if he'll run again. And Rex Nelson says Huckabee is facing a dilemma now similar to the one he faced in 1992, when he had to decide whether it was worth risking his comfortable life to run for public office.
Mr. NELSON: If he runs for president again, obviously, the television show goes away overnight; the daily radio commentaries go away overnight; the paid speeches go away overnight.
JAFFE: And for the first time in his life, says Nelson, Huckabee is making really good money and having fun. And that's a tough combination to walk away from.
Huckabee says he'll announce his decision this summer.
Ina Jaffe, NPR News.