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Huckabee discusses differences with Bush

From NBC's Mark Murray
At a breakfast meeting with Washington reporters today, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), who formed a presidential exploratory committee last week, discussed his path towards winning the Republican nomination, answered questions about his foreign policy experience (or lack thereof), and emphasized the importance of domestic issues (education, transportation, and health care). Yet perhaps most interestingly, Huckabee -- who is trying to position himself as the true conservative in the field -- freely admitted his differences with President Bush, something that the GOP presidential front-runners have been reluctant to do recently.

For starters, he took issue with Bush's budget proposal that cuts Medicaid by lowering payments to providers, calling it "short-sighted." As he did on Meet the Press, Huckabee said it's "a huge problem" that most of his state's National Guard has been deployed to Iraq, saying it has taken an enormous toll on their families, communities, and employers. He also noted that, if elected president, he would try to speak to countries like Iran and Syria to help bring stability to Iraq -- something that Bush has been loathe to do. "I would not leave anything off the table," he said. "I don't think that talking to someone is a sign of weakness." Regarding the war itself, he added that the Bush Administration had a clear plan to topple Saddam Hussein, but didn't have one to bring stability to Iraq.

Asked whether Bush's foreign policy record helps or hurts a presidential candidate like him -- since Bush was a governor running for president in 2000 without much foreign policy experience -- Huckabee replied, "I don't think it's necessarily helpful, but I also don't think it's detrimental." Also asked if GOP rival John McCain's support for the war is hurting him, Huckabee said, "That and a Washington address are probably not strong attributes at this point."

Huckabee admitted that he's trailing McCain and the other GOP front-runners, but noted: "In a marathon, it is not a good thing to be the guy who rushes out in front." He also quipped that when 800-pound gorillas fall, "they leave a huge thud." Laying out his path to winning the GOP nomination -- or at least breaking into the top tier of candidates -- Huckabee said he must beat expectations in August's Iowa straw poll, finish in the top three in the Iowa caucuses, and do well in South Carolina. If he doesn't accomplish those things, Huckabee said, he won't still be in the race a year from now. "But I'm betting the farm that I do."