It is official: When the Republicans run against Barack Obama in 2012, there will be no more Mr. Nice Guy.
Mike Huckabee was that guy last time around. When he ran for the Republican nomination in 2008, he was amiable and affable. He even told jokes.
Though he had served as governor of Arkansas for more than eight years, he would tell audiences, "A Republican in my state feels about as out of place as Michael Vick at the Westminster dog show."
When, at a campaign speech in West Des Moines, Iowa, in August 2007, a cell phone began ringing in the audience, Huckabee said, "If that is Dick Cheney asking me to go on a duck hunt, I am not here."
Huckabee had a message that he repeated over and over: "I am a conservative, but I am not mad at anybody."
Maybe he should have been. Though officially he came in second, he didn't get anywhere near the nomination, winning 12 percent of the delegates to John McCain's 66 percent. (Mitt Romney came in third, with 9 percent.)
The Republicans had a terrible general election, but Huckabee, who turned 54 last week, has been smart enough to notice that his party has gone quickly from despair and disillusionment to a new emotion: anger.
He also has noticed that it doesn't take much to energize the hard-core Republican base these days. Sarah Palin did it with two words: death panels.
As Sam Stein of The Huffington Post reported, Huckabee said on his radio show last week that under President Obama's health care plan, Ted Kennedy would have been told to "go home to take pain pills and die."
ABC's George Stephanopoulos called this a "hand grenade" and said Huckabee was demonstrating that he was not going to be "outmaneuvered" by Palin when it came to courting conservatives.
Ed Kilgore of The New Republic wrote, "This despicable rant should disqualify Mike Huckabee from any further liberal sympathy, no matter how much he tries to joke or rock-n-roll his way back into mainstream acceptability."
But Huckabee (who plays bass guitar in a rock-and-roll band called Capitol Offense) is probably not thinking too much about mainstream acceptability these days. Winning the Republican nomination by winning hard-core conservatives the kind who vote in primaries is very much on his mind.
So Huckabee doesn't just oppose Obama on health care or make jokes about it. Huckabee says that "Lenin and Stalin would love this stuff" when it comes to Obama's "health care rationing." Huckabee also says: "The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics may be dead, but a Union of American Socialist Republics is being born."
Huckabee's early poll numbers have been swell. In July, a Washington Post-ABC poll of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents showed Huckabee leading the Republican pack with 26 percent, Romney with 21 percent and Palin with 19 percent.
Gallup polled the same group in July, and though the results were different, there was still a bunch-up among the top three: Romney with 26 percent, Palin with 21 percent and Huckabee with 19 percent.
"However," Gallup noted, "Huckabee's numbers among all Americans look better by comparison." When favorability and unfavorability were measured, Huckabee had a plus-19 favorable score, Romney had a plus-8 and Palin had a minus-2.
Gallup warned that polls taken this early cannot be expected to predict who the eventual nominee will be, but to "the extent Palin, Romney and Huckabee can capitalize on their higher name recognition than that of their possible challengers to raise money and build strong campaign organizations, they will be formidable contenders should they decide to pursue the 2012 Republican presidential nomination."
I asked Greg Mueller, a political consultant who specializes in conservative candidates, about the new tough talk we are seeing from Huckabee and others.
"Huckabee is being a fighting Republican, and this is a good position to be in as you try to position for 2012," Mueller said. He also said that Republican contenders have seen the anger at the recent town halls and recognize it as an opportunity.
"There is a coalition to be tapped of Republicans, independents, reawakened Perot voters and center-right Democrats," Mueller said. "Dare I say it? It is the Reagan coalition and, before that, the Nixon coalition."
Mueller said this coalition is looking for someone who will stand up and "fight in an energetic fashion."
"Obama is pandering too much to our enemies abroad and breaking records for government spending at home," Mueller said. He said the message conservatives want to hear is: "A strong America abroad and a strong America at home."
"We want somebody who will energize with a broad vision," Mueller said. "We don't want somebody who will try to wonk his way to victory."
The run-up to 2012 is already beginning. And red meat is definitely on the menu.