Exclusive: Mike Huckabee on launching presidential campaign

This is a rush transcript from "The Kelly File," May 5, 2015. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

MEGYN KELLY, HOST: Breaking tonight, the 2016 race for the White House transformed again. Three new candidates jumping in in just the last 24 hours and talking to "The Kelly File" first. Tonight in a "Kelly File" exclusive Governor Mike Huckabee.

Welcome to "The Kelly File" everyone. I'm Megyn Kelly. Hours ago the big announcement from Hope, Arkansas. The conservative pastor, former governor and TV host declaring that he is running for president. The governor promising to give America what he says President Obama has failed to deliver.


FORMER GOV. MIKE HUCKABEE, R-ARK.: We were promised Hope, but it was just talk. And now we need the kind of change that really could get America from hope to higher ground.



KELLY: In moments, I'll speak to Governor Huckabee who is here with me live. And he will get his first chance to face our panel of voters as an official 2016 presidential candidate.

But first, it was two decades ago that one road to the White House began in a place called Hope for then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton. Now another son of hope is counting on history to repeat itself. So, "The Kelly File" decided to visit Governor Huckabee's hometown and he showed us around a bit.


KELLY (voice-over): Born August 24th, 1955, to Dorsey and Mae Huckabee, Mike Huckabee's childhood in Arkansas was that of a typical American kid.

HUCKABEE: Hope is a great kind of town to grow up in because it's a lot like Mayberry.

KELLY: His dad worked two jobs as a firefighter and mechanic. His mom, a clerk at a gas company. The family lived paycheck to paycheck in a small one-story rental house.

HUCKABEE: It's the only house I ever knew growing up in Hope.

KELLY: The young Huckabee learned to ride his bike in the alley across the way, loved to play baseball until dark in the lot near his home.

HUCKABEE: We'd take black electrical tape and wrap the baseball in it so we'd get a little more mileage out of the baseball.

KELLY: But it was at his father's firehouse just steps away from the family home where some of his fondest memories were made.

HUCKABEE: Sliding down the pole and playing on the fire trucks and ringing the bell on the ladder truck.

KELLY: By the age of 14, Huckabee already had a job at the local radio station.

HUCKABEE: Pascal Jones (ph) who was the manager of that station was my mentor, not only in the sense of the radio station, but he was also a mentor to me in terms of community service and patriotism.

KELLY: At school, he became heavily involved in student council. And by the age of 16, he was already a successful statewide politician. Chosen governor of Arkansas Boys State, a mock government program for kids, that has shaped the lives of many leaders including President Clinton. A few days after Boys State ended, another transformative event took place. This time the young Christian traveled to Texas for an event some referred to as the Jesus Woodstock.

HUCKABEE: It was an extraordinary event. If you grow up in a town of 8,000 people, to be anywhere with 100,000 people is pretty stunning.

KELLY: It was here that he and other evangelical Christians learned from the likes of the Reverend Billy Graham and rocked out to entertainers like Johnny Cash. A year later, Mike Huckabee would achieve something no other man in his family ever had.

HUCKABEE: I'm the first male in my entire family lineage that ever graduated from high school, much less went to college.

KELLY: Seminary followed. By 1974, another major life event. He married the love of his life, his high school sweetheart, Janet. It was a simple ceremony at her mother's house. Together he and Janet raised their two sons and a daughter while he made a living as a local pastor. It wasn't until age 36 that Huckabee first decided to try his luck at national politics, running and losing a 1992 race for U.S. Senate.

In 1993, his luck would change. He won the lieutenant governor's seat, a position he held until 1996. That's when scandal hit then-Governor Jim "Guy" Tucker who was convicted of fraud and forced to resign. As Huckabee prepared to take the oath of office, Tucker stunned voters with a sudden about-face, refusing to step aside. Huckabee wasn't having it.

HUCKABEE: You are now going back to what you told the people. And it feels, it seems to me -- please let me finish -- that your actions are being done in your interest, not in the interest of the people of Arkansas.

KELLY: After a few wild hours, Huckabee took over. Two years later, he was elected again, and yet another term followed after that. Eventually he would aspire to an even higher office. The year was 2007.

TIM RUSSERT, "MEET THE PRESS"/NBC, JAN. 28, 2007: Are you running for president of the United States?

HUCKABEE: Tim, tomorrow I'll be filing papers to launch an exploratory committee, and yes, I'll be out there.

KELLY: In the 2008 White House race, Huckabee struck a chord with conservatives and evangelicals, finishing at or near the top in key battles. And in what would become his signature wit, he won over the crowd with a few zingers.

HUCKABEE: We've had a Congress that spent money like John Edwards at a beauty shop, and it's high time --

Whether we need to send somebody to Mars, I don't know. But I'll tell you what, if we do, I've got a few suggestions, and maybe Hillary could be on the first rocket to Mars.

KELLY: Eventually the republicans chose another candidate, and Huckabee bowed out.

HUCKABEE: Ladies and gentlemen, I called Senator McCain a few moments ago.

KELLY: Many thought Huckabee might be chosen as McCain's running mate, but that job went to Governor Sarah Palin. As for Huckabee, the radio host-turned governor returned to his roots in broadcasting.

HUCKABEE: Welcome to "Huckabee."

KELLY: His show was a hit. And as the 2012 presidential race approached, many expected him to capitalize on his growing brand. They were proven wrong.

HUCKABEE, MAY 11, 2011: All the factors say go. But my heart says no. And that's the decision that I've made.

KELLY: And as the 2016 White House contest began to produce contenders, Huckabee's name again began rising up the ranks. Finally in January 2015, the boy from Hope offered supporters just that.

HUCKABEE, JAN. 3: I say good-bye, but as we say in television, stay tuned.  There's more to come.

KELLY: It was only a hint then. But today, he made it official back in Hope.

HUCKABEE: So it seems perfectly fitting that it would be here that I announce that I am the candidate for president of the United States of America!



KELLY: And joining me now with a live studio audience ready with questions of their own, Governor Mike Huckabee, candidate now for president of the United States. Governor, great to see you.

HUCKABEE: Thank you, Megyn. Great to be here.

KELLY: How you feeling?

HUCKABEE: I feel terrific. I'm glad that I was able to finally say I'm going to run for president, I'm a candidate. And it was a remarkable day.  Basically today we had so many people -- there were 2,500 people. We had 900 in overflow. That means that it's like one out of every three people who live in Hope were there.

KELLY: I know you said you were relieved when they clapped. It would have been embarrassing if they had that reaction when you announced that you were running.

HUCKABEE: It would have been embarrassing.

KELLY: But you did say in 2012 that you weren't running, and we showed the clip of that. What changed between then and now?

HUCKABEE: This country has changed. I think I came to the conclusion that I was in a better position to make the run. I was not ready. I was ready mentally and emotionally, but I don't think I was ready organizationally and politically. I think I am now. And I think today's announcement reflected what shocked a lot of people of just how ready we were, how detailed our team was. That we're taking this seriously. This is not some vanity project. I'm planning on taking this all the way to the White House.

KELLY: Now, last time around you won in Iowa, among other places. And the evangelicals loved you. This time around, the pundits say you have more competition for the evangelical vote from Ted Cruz to Marco Rubio. And the questions being raised, can you do as well with the evangelicals, and can you broaden your coalition which you needed to do the last time?

HUCKABEE: First of all, I think the narrative that the evangelicals were the only support I had is not exactly accurate because what I had in 2008 and what I think will happen this time is a coalition -- a lot of them, yes, evangelicals, but a lot of people who are working-class people who feel that the government of the United States has simply ignored them, left them behind, forgotten them.

We had a couple that got to the hall today at 1:45 in the morning, they have driven up from South Louisiana.  They arrived at 1:45. We still had crew working getting things ready.  They said, well, the doors don't open until 8:00. They said we don't want to miss a thing. They stayed in their car and the parking lot. The lady is blind, her husband and the lady stayed in their car. Needless to say, we moved them to the front seats.

But Megyn, that's the kind of support that we see. We had a lady call our office today after the announcement.  Said, "I've got $36 in my bank account. I'm sending 10 of it and I'll send more when I can." This is who is out there.

KELLY: I know you say this is how you're going to put the money behind your campaign together, five, 10 and hopefully greater donations from people who support you as opposed to the billionaires who may pick and choose another republican candidate. Do you have one of those billionaires, too?

HUCKABEE: I hope so. You know, I mean, I'd love to have a bunch of them.  And I understand that we've got to have a lot of money to run the campaign.  I'm not being coy about that because, yes, you've got to raise a lot of money, an obscene amount of money. One of the things that I found so disgusting about the process, it's not about the best ideas. If you have a few sugar daddies who can just write you a big check, you can be a credible candidate whether or you have a stinking idea or not as to what he would do and what's wrong with the country and how to fix it. But that's the process we have. We all have to live with the same rules, and that includes me.

KELLY: Let's talk about how you'll appeal to the conservative base of the Republican Party because you've got to check that box before you go forward and challenge Hillary who I know you believe will be the nominee. Some of the knocks on you have been that you are not conservative enough and that you're a big-government guy. And as governor, you did reduce taxes in some instances, but you also increased the minimum wage, raised gas taxes, sales taxes, some other taxes and you increased spending and the size of government by hiring more employees. So the Cato Institute says that you are the biggest big-government conservative running. Is that true?

HUCKABEE: No, it isn't true. And part of what they do, organizations, often the think tanks, will take a template and they will create sort of their template that they will lay over all 50 states. They don't look at the political dynamics, they don't look at the unique constitutional or statutory requirements. For example, state government actually grew only a half a percent, half of one percent per year during 10-and-a-half years that I was governor in the most democratic state in America.

Megyn, I didn't have a Republican legislature that walked in every day and saying, Governor, what would you like for us to do to make you look good?

KELLY: It's a miracle you got elected.

HUCKABEE: It's a miracle I got elected, even a greater miracle I got reelected. And the greatest miracle of all was that I never got less than 90 percent of my legislative package passed against of all the headwinds.

KELLY: That's unbelievable because you were only the third Republican governor elected since reconstruction in the state of Arkansas.


KELLY: It's not like this was a red state. And yet you got to the top of it. But now you explain to me --because some of the folks say, well, you know, he's this big-government guy, and he's not going to appeal to the Republican base because of things like his position on illegal immigration.  Back in 2006, I think it was, you supported a path to citizenship and said locking up or deporting 12 million people isn't going to happen. Do you stand by that?

HUCKABEE: What we need to do is fix the border. Look, I think everybody basically agrees that the problem is not a problem that people want to come to America. I don't blame people for wanting to come to America. I said today in my speech, I get on my knees every night. I thank God people are trying to break into America and not trying to break out of America.

But we've got to have control of the border which we don't. That's not so much a problem of people who want to come here. That's a problem of our government not doing its job.

KELLY: So secure the borders first.

HUCKABEE: Absolutely.

KELLY: On the size of government, you said in 2008, I'm not a Republican because I grew up rich, and as our piece documented, you did not.


KELLY: You said I'm a Republican because I didn't want to spend the rest of my life poor.


KELLY: Waiting for the government to rescue me. Explain that.

HUCKABEE: Poverty is an industry in America. There are a lot of people who are poor in America who are poor because the government traps them.  This nonsense that people are poor because they want to be, that's not true. People aren't poor because they like to be poor. They're poor because they don't feel like they've got a chance. And every time they try to reach for the next rung on the ladder, it is the boot of government that often comes right crashing against their head. Because the programs penalize people for wanting to work harder.

I told a story of the guy I met in New Hampshire. He started working a double shift. And he thought, okay, I'll work 16 hours a day rather than eight. I want to help my daughter through grad school. He'll make twice the money, right? Wrong. Because working a double shift means he made so much money in the double shift that now he's in a new tax bracket, and the government got more of what he made in the second shift than he did.

KELLY: Last question before we go to our panel. You say you've had experience running against the Clinton machine.


KELLY: Technically, they were out of Arkansas by the time you took the governor's mansion. But how do you think -- what do you mean by that, and how's that going to be an advantage to you if you become the nominee?

HUCKABEE: Well, when people say they were gone, let me tell you something, Bill Clinton was governor for 12 years. That means 1,000 people a year he appointed to office. When I came into office, first as lieutenant governor, then as governor, every agency was populated with the people he had hired and appointed --

KELLY: They didn't give you a warm and fuzzy welcome?

HUCKABEE: Oh, no. My door was nailed shut as lieutenant governor.

KELLY: That is actually true.

HUCKABEE: It was literally nailed shut. I couldn't get in for 59 days.  It wasn't like they did it and said I was just kidding. For 59 days. When I finally got in the office, all the office furniture had been stripped.  Couldn't get letterhead printed. It was not --

KELLY: You're lucky they didn't take it.

HUCKABEE: I was lucky I lived to tell about it. I would get on an elevator and people would get off. It was brutal, but I learned how to govern.

KELLY: A softer departure from the Fox News Channel. I think you can attest to that.

HUCKABEE: Yes, nobody threw anything at me. It was a wonderful departure, and I still love the people here.

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