MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
And we're going to turn now to our series, Crunch Time, exploring pivotal moments for the presidential candidates. Republican Mike Huckabee had a life- changing moment five years ago. In his final term as Arkansas governor, he was tipping the scales at over 300 pounds. But he made a decision to lose weight, a lot of weight, more than 100 pounds. And at age 52, he has now kept the weight off for five years. Huckabee's decision to confront obesity liberated him physically, giving him the stamina to run a national campaign.
As NPR's David Greene reports, the decision also revealed the human side of a politician who used to be afraid to walk into a room.
DAVID GREENE: Mike Huckabee's home state of Arkansas is proud of many things, including its fried food. And for a long time, the state's governor indulged as much as anyone. A British documentary a few years ago suggested this helped Huckabee fit right in.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY)
Unidentified Man #1: I, Mike Huckabee...
MIKE HUCKABEE: I, Mike Huckabee...
Man #1: Do solemnly swear...
HUCKABEE: Do solemnly swear...
GREENE: In Arkansas, being fat was never a political liability. Governor Huckabee was seen as a good, old boy solid in the (unintelligible).
GREENE: But underneath was a man who was suffering. In early 2003, Huckabee was ready to start a cabinet meeting. He came into the room and more than 50 top state officials stood up to honor him.
HUCKABEE: So I walked in and proceeded to the chair at the head of the large table in the conference room. And when I did, the chair gave way. And I found myself sprawled down the floor. It was terribly humiliating.
GREENE: He was recalling the humiliation in an interview recently. Those other cabinet members in the room, he says, didn't know what to do.
HUCKABEE: Some of them wanted to laugh. But I think they thought, if I do, I'm going to get fired today. So they're all trying to act like, oh, is he okay? Are you all right? And I think deep down they were saying, my gosh, it's a wonder he hadn't broken a lot of chairs. So it was a pretty embarrassing moment and one of those kind of things that people who are very overweight experience. And that's the embarrassing moments, the people looking at you when you get on an airline and give you that, gee, I-hope-you're-not-sitting-by-me look. It happens all the time.
GREENE: Huckabee says he knew he had a problem.
HUCKABEE: I had yo-yo dieted so many times in my adult life. I'd gain weight. I'd lose an enormous amount of weight on a diet. And then it'd creep back up and I ended up weighing more than I did before the diet. And I just kind of resigned that this is the way it is, that I'm just destined to be a great, big guy.
GREENE: And that he was.
HUCKABEE: You know, the reality is the scales quit at 280. So we were pretty sure we were 300 or better.
PHILLIP KERN: My name is Dr. Phillip Kern. I'm a professor of medicine and an endocrinologist at the University of Arkansas.
GREENE. Dr. Kern is the person Huckabee turned to at the time. The governor's family doctor had told him he had type 2 diabetes and that the disease could kill him. So he invited Dr. Kern to the governor's mansion in Little Rock. Kern runs a program for obese people. He admits he was a little uncomfortable taking on such a high-profile patient.
KERN: The fear, I guess, would be that every news outlet in Arkansas certainly would be hyping the fact that, oh, Governor Huckabee lost weight on the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Weight Loss Program. And then he drops 50 pounds and gains it right back just as quickly. And then everyone says, oh, boy, that program stinks, you know?
GREENE: But Kern took Huckabee as his patient and laid out his program. It involves special protein shakes that wean you off food. When you do eat, you're eating a lot of vegetables. And you have to exercise. Kern says Huckabee was an eager student. He told the doctor that the property around the governor's mansion had great areas to walk.
KERN: And I said to him, well, governor, that sounds like a great idea. And maybe you could even, after a while when you lose some weight and get a little bit in better shape, you can pick up the pace a little bit. And maybe even after a while, break into a jog and...
GREENE: Maybe even run a race.
KERN: When I started talking 5Ks, he thought I was crazy.
GREENE: But Huckabee became obsessed. He drank the shakes. He said no to the fried food. He walked, he started running and training. And by 2005...
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
Unidentified Man #3: The star of the Little Rock Marathon.
Unidentified Woman: All right (unintelligible).
GREENE: He said he was going to do it and he is going to do it. Governor Mike Huckabee crossing the finish line - 4:38:58. Congratulations, Governor.
GREENE: Everyone straight up to President Bush was noticing a smaller governor.
GEORGE W: Thanks for coming. Thanks for the warm welcome. I appreciate your fine words, skinny. I got off the airplane, I wasn't sure who I was looking at.
GREENE: Huckabee says his weight loss redefined him. As a 300-pound man, he says, he would walk into a room and immediately tell a joke about being fat just so he felt like people were laughing with him, and not at him. Now, he says, things are different.
HUCKABEE: And walking into a room and not having to first fend off those, golly gee, this guy is really terribly out of shape. He doesn't look like a person I'd want to vote for. I don't have to overcome that like I did in the past.
GREENE: Nowadays, you do notice that as Huckabee is out chatting with voters, he seems comfortable in his skin. And the governor says he never had so much energy. He used to get so out of breath walking up the steps at the state capitol that he'd be panting as he talked to reporters. Now, Huckabee likes to strap on his bass guitar on the campaign trail and jam with his band, Capitol Offense.
Unidentified Man #4: This perfect song is (unintelligible) came because his big slogan was taking care of business in a flash. And we know that one of the most important things that we have to do is take care of some business. That business today is voting for Mike Huckabee.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: How many people will do that is a big question for the former governor. He's not one of the frontrunners in the Republican race for president. But Huckabee says his battle with obesity has given him a special ability to connect with people who are struggling with their own weight or with a disease. Those kinds of personal connections can be important in states like Iowa, where voters value face time. And Huckabee has been running a surprising second there. The governor talks often of weight loss and fitness. In fact, he weaves it into all kinds of subjects - health care, national security, and why he thinks he still has a chance to be president.
HUCKABEE: When people say, you're behind. You know, these other candidates, look how much money they have. Look how much ahead they are. You know, I shrug it off. I say, look, this is a 26.2-mile race. And the fact that somebody is in front of me at mile seven doesn't mean a whole lot. Because by mile 14, they may be laying on the ground, grabbing their cramping calf muscles and I'm going to be blowing past them because I'm trained for this. I'm ready to go to the finish line.
GREENE: One person who loves to hear that confident talk is Dr. Kern. But Kern has a warning for all his patients including Huckabee. You may be able to lose a lot of weight, but keeping it off, resisting temptation day after day, can be a lifelong challenge. Huckabee says he's not going to fall back to his old ways, but that does mean leaving some of his roots behind.
Man #1: In the deep South, they do deep fry everything, even their desert. Here, boiling away in its greasy glory is Snickers bar.
GREENE: David Greene, NPR News.
BLOCK: This is NPR, National Public Radio.