STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Next, we'll continue our look at the early campaigns of the presidential candidates. Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee is not among the frontrunners, but he has been getting more media attention lately. That's thanks in part to last month's second place finish in the Iowa Republican straw poll. Before running for president, the conservative was a Baptist minister. He was best known as the second governor from Hope, Arkansas. He was the one who lost 110 pounds.
As part of our series on first campaigns, NPR's Greg Allen reports on the race that first drew Mike Huckabee into politics.
GREG ALLEN: It was in 1992, Mike Huckabee at that time was a young personable pastor of Beech Street First Baptist Church in Texarkana. Even more important, he was president of the Arkansas Baptist Convention. He won that position by beating another up and coming minister, Ronnie Floyd, who today heads Arkansas's largest Baptist Church.
Reverend Floyd says both were conservative, but Huckabee won largely on the force of his personality.
Reverend RONNIE FLOYD (First Baptist Church): There are two great things about Mike Huckabee. He is highly relational, he does well with people, and he is media friendly. And those things really helped launch him.
ALLEN: In Arkansas at that time, more than one-fifth of the state's voters were members of the Southern Baptist Church. And it was as head of the state Baptist convention that Mike Huckabee decided to take on one of Arkansas' most popular politicians.
Democratic Senator Dale Bumpers was more than just popular; he was a folksy three-term senator and former governor, a political icon. But he also was liberal. In running for the Senate, Huckabee thought Arkansas voters were ready for a change. Looking back now, he says, he was wrong.
Mr. MIKE HUCKABEE (Former Republican Governor, Arkansas): Yeah, it was, you know, David goes against Goliath, and this time David forgot to put the rock in his sling.
ALLEN: With little state party organization to draw on, Huckabee hired political consultants with national expertise - to no avail. Bumpers easily defeated Huckabee after a nasty campaign that featured negative ads and character attacks.
Hoyt Purvis is a professor of political science at the University of Arkansas.
Professor HOYT PURVIS (University of Arkansas): Huckabee ran what we would call a kind of a cookie-cutter right-wing campaign against Bumpers, attacking him, among other things, for his support for the National Endowment for the Arts, which he said in effect that Bumpers was supporting pornography.
ALLEN: Purvis says it's a strategy that backfired. Dale Bumpers got indignant and ran ads saying so. Arkansans voters agreed.
Prof. PURVIS: People in Arkansas felt like they knew Dale Bumpers and that Dale Bumpers was not a pornographer or not somebody who supported pornography; and that in this case Huckabee had really kind of gone over the line.
ALLEN: Today, Dale Bumpers, retired from the Senate and in private practice in Washington, has only good things to say about Huckabee.
Huckabee says the experience taught him a lesson about following the advice of outside political consultants.
Mr. HUCKABEE: You need to go with your own gut instincts and not let people around you push you into things, particularly if they're consultants, because when the campaign's over, they disappear. And ultimately you've got to live with your own decisions, and that's something that I vowed after that campaign I'd never do again, is ever go against my instincts.
ALLEN: One year after that decisive defeat, Mike Huckabee learned another lesson about the unpredictability of politics. In '92, the same year he lost, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton was elected to the presidency. His lieutenant governor, Jim Guy Tucker, took over as governor. Huckabee was recruited by Republicans to run for the lieutenant governor's seat in a special election, and won.
And then three years later, the unexpected happened again. Governor Tucker was indicted and convicted in the Whitewater scandal and forced to resign. Mike Huckabee suddenly was governor, only the fourth Republican to hold the office since Reconstruction in a state dominated by Democrats.
Rex Nelson was Huckabee's communications director.
Mr. REX Nelson (Mike Huckabee's Communications Director): To be a Republican governor in one of the most Democratic states in the country, I mean, the margins aren't even close in the Arkansas legislature. I think he was amazingly successful. And you do that by being pragmatic, by being a conciliator.
ALLEN: In Arkansas, during his time as governor, Nelson says Huckabee's harshest criticism came not from Democrats, but from very conservative Republicans, especially over his contentious consolidation plan that would shut down many rural schools - Shiite Republicans, Huckabee called them. Huckabee says he takes a different approach.
Mr. HUCKABEE: I'm a conservative, but I'm not mad at anybody about it. I've learned how that you don't have to give up your own convictions, but you do need to be willing to have an open mind, spirit and heart toward people who are completely different than you.
ALLEN: Huckabee says that style helped him as Arkansas governor, and he hopes it will again in his race for the Republican presidential nomination. He's trying to position himself as conservative, but a conservative with a smile.
Greg Allen, NPR News.
INSKEEP: You can explore other candidates' first campaigns by going to npr.org.