HOPE, Arkansas — The lights dimmed in Hempstead Hall, and a baritone voice boomed out over the auditorium speakers announcing the surprise musical guest who had come to help former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee kick off his presidential campaign: 71-year-old crooner Tony Orlando.
The audience went wild.
Hundreds of Huckabee die-hards bounced up and down in orthopedic shoes as they sang along with the mustachioed performer's 1973 hit, "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree." The fuddy-duddy pre-show entertainment marked a decisive departure from the top-40 soundtracks that have dominated Republican presidential campaign launches so far this year. At Marco Rubio's announcement last month in Miami, Pitbull and Black Eyed Peas blasted from the sound system; in Kentucky, Rand Paul's playlist comprised an ecclectic mix ranging from Modest Mouse to Bruno Mars; and at his Monday event in Detroit, Ben Carson even had a gospel choir perform a rendition of Eminem's "Lose Yourself."
But Huckabee, the 59-year-old former Baptist preacher who just became the sixth Republican to toss his hat in the 2016 ring, is not preoccupied with pretenses of hipness. In a GOP field packed with candidates working to define themselves by their youth, Huckabee is unapologetically positioning himself as an avatar for conservative baby boomers — pledging to protect the elderly from Republicans who want to cut Social Security; proudly planting his flag with traditionalists on generational issues like marriage; and lacing his rhetoric with cultural references more likely to resonate with geriatrics than twenty-somethings.
Huckabee adviser Hogan Gidley said the new generation of fresh-faced contenders in the race who spend their time trying to undermine more experienced rivals may soon find that "talk is cheap," and voters want a president who has experience.
"Newness is a good thing, but you know, when you get on to an airplane you want at least one of the pilots to have a few grey hairs," Gidley said. "You want to know he's been through some turbulence. You want to know he's had to land in a lightning storm."
Gidley added that Huckabee's message "is not tailor-made for a certain demographic; it's for all Americans." But the candidate's demographic base was hard to ignore at the event here Tuesday, where the overflow crowd of 2,000-plus seemed to contain even more senior citizens than the average GOP presidential rally, despite being held at a community college. One of the most enthusiastically received portions of Huckabee's fiery speech took aim at conservative politicians who have called for overhauling entitlement programs.
"Some propose that to save safety nets like Medicare and Social Security, we need to chop off the payouts for the people who have faithfully had their paychecks and pockets picked by the politicians promising that their money would be waiting for them when they were old and sick," Huckabee declared.
He added, "As president, I promise you will get what you paid for! How can anyone trust government again if they steal from us and lie to us?"
Bald heads and white hair gleamed beneath the red auditorium lights as voters rose to reward the candidate's first official campaign promise with a standing ovation.
When Huckabee first began taking shots at fellow Republicans over these issues last month — sharply criticizing Chris Christie's Social Security proposal, and telling reporters he wouldn't sign Paul Ryan's Medicare bill if he were in the Oval Office — he received strong pushback from many conservatives. In some ways, the divide highlights an ideological shift that took place on the right largely after he left office. Though he has always been conservative on social issues, Huckabee hardly governed as a Tea Party purist when it came to taxes and the role of the government. He pushed for increased public school funding, championed a health care program expanding coverage for children who didn't qualify for Medicaid, and urged constituents to increase their own taxes in order to improve the state's infrastructure. And while he did cut income taxes substantially, he also looked for new sources of revenue by raising sales taxes and gas taxes. At the time, Republicans considered him an effective and generally conservative governor, but since the Tea Party revolution of 2010, the conservative movement has become much more focused on shrinking government — which is why Huckabee's full-throated defense of federal entitlement programs has made his message relatively unique.
But there is also a compelling political rationale to the candidate's positioning. One of the main reasons Huckabee remains broadly familiar with Republican voters nationwide is his high-profile stint as a Fox News host. His weekend talk show Huckabee — which featured a mix of right-wing polemics, religious devotionals, stories about his grandchildren, and musical performances by "The Little Rockers," the house band in which Huckabee played bass — was perfectly pitched to the conservative network's aging audience, whose average viewer is nearly 69 years old. And while Social Security reform may be gaining momentum among conservative wonks and younger Americans, polls show it is deeply unpopular among the type of viewers who tuned in every week to his show.
Rather than go along with the new conventional wisdom of the conservative movement, Huckabee is siding with his core fan base of retirees. His hope is that he can turn the issue into a wedge during the primaries where many Republicans will be claiming their youth gives them a competitive edge against Hillary Clinton. Huckabee's strategy could work: Exit polls in 2012 found that in many states, nearly a third of Republican primary voters were 65 or older.
The candidate's speech Tuesday was replete with other signs that he's gearing his campaign message toward the grandparents of the GOP. At one point, he waxed nostalgic about John F. Kennedy, and gauzily reminisced about watching the 1969 moon landing.
And whereas younger opponents have sought to strike a more compassionate tone on social issues — with Rubio, for example, saying he would attend a loved one's same-sex wedding despite his religious opposition to the practice — Huckabee ominously fretted that "we've lost our way morally."
"We have witnessed the slaughter of over 55 million babies in the name of choice, and are now threatening the foundation of religious liberty by criminalizing Christianity in demanding that we abandon Biblical principles of natural marriage," Huckabee said.
Just for good measure, he threw in a dig at President Obama by wondering, "if he could watch a western from the '50s and be able to figure out who the good guys and bad guys are."
True, Huckabee was only five years old when the '50s ended. But it's well-honed rhetoric like this that has made him so beloved by people like Johnnie Long, a 79-year-old who drove two hours from Cave City, Arkansas, with his blind wife in the passenger seat, and arrived at Tuesday's event around 2:00 a.m. — more than eight hours before the candidate was scheduled to take the stage. They slept in the car for a while, and as soon as the doors opened, the couple found prime seats near the stage.
Long said he watched Huckabee's show on Fox every week, and was drawn to the candidate first and foremost because, "God is on his side." Asked what else he believed made Huckabee superior to other Republicans, he rattled off a diverse list of reasons, from his support for Israel, to his experience running the state's National Guard — which he said would come in handy if the president chooses not to abdicate the White House at the end of his term and tries instead to "become King Obama."
As for the conservatives who have taken issue with Huckabee's refusal to cut Social Security, Long said, "I agree with him on that. It doesn't bother me."
Then, as an afterthought, he added, "Of course, it might bother the younger generation."