TAMPA — Mike Huckabee's national book tour stopped in Hyde Park on Friday, and while it had the look and feel of a whistle-stop campaign for another presidential run, the former Arkansas governor said it's so much more.
"I don't know, 2012 is a long way away," Huckabee said while he sat on a tour bus that arrived at 9 a.m. from an earlier book signing in Sarasota. "What I want to do is help people understand that the Republican Party is not dead."
With a TV show on Fox and a bestselling book, Huckabee has positioned himself to be one of the most prominent conservative voices during the next few years of the Democrats in charge. His tour allows him to share his thoughts on the big issues of the day to a wider audience, like on Friday when he told a reporter he was concerned about the recent federal bailouts of banks.
"Right now, the government is picking the winners and losers of the free market," he said. "They shouldn't throw money at a problem if we don't fix what went wrong in the first place."
Over three weeks, Huckabee is visiting more than 50 cities to promote his recently released book, Do the Right Thing, an inside look at his presidential campaign.
As he stepped from the bus in Tampa, about 75 fans cheered his appearance, which was sponsored by Inkwood Books.
"This is bigger than the presidency," said Kathy Cox of St. Petersburg. "This is about him getting a message out that integrity matters. I like his values. I'm Christian; he's a Christian."
Cox's sister, Nancy Main, was visiting for Thanksgiving from North Carolina. She likes Huckabee, too, and said he could play the same role Pat Robertson has played for years as the proxy for religious conservatives. "He's someone the rural parts of America can relate to," Main said.
Several of those waiting in line touted his plan to eliminate the federal income tax and replace it with a sales tax. It's called the FairTax Plan and advocates say it would offer cash rebates to ensure those below the poverty line don't pay federal taxes on essential goods and services.
Kathy Sorensen came from Treasure Island to catch a glimpse of the man she says would make a terrific president — someday.
"It's not that he's a man of God, because I'm a Christian," Sorensen said. "It's that he has ideas like the FairTax. It is more fair. Poor people wouldn't be buying iPods if we had a FairTax."
Almost everyone awaiting Huckabee's autograph said they currently support the man who has yet to take office, Barack Obama. But for many, the prospect of a Huckabee administration was an attractive one to contemplate in the coming years.
"I love that man," shouted Dennis Krause, a 28-year-old from St. Petersburg as Huckabee passed. "Obama might be a good president, but I'm already thinking about 2012."
Krause brought his guitar. On the spot, started strumming and improvised a ditty.
I have a friend named Mike Huckabee
He's going to be president, don't you see.
Huckabee, who plays the bass guitar, didn't see Krause perform this song. But he did later sign Krause's guitar.
"I play this for my church's Bible class," Krause said. "Mike will be with us now every Wednesday night."