WASHINGTON -- Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee told fellow Republicans on Thursday that rival Democrats were trying to win over female voters by promising them free birth control and telling them "they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government." Huckabee made the comment as he was making a pitch that the GOP needs to broaden its appeal and end its internal divisiveness.
Huckabee, a favorite of Christian conservatives and a Fox News personality, told the Republican Party's leaders and activists that purity tests within the party only shrink the ranks. His speech about expanding the appeal of the GOP, designed to whet the 168-member Republican National Committee's appetite for a Huckabee 2016 campaign, won a quick rebuke from the White House over contraception.
Asked about Huckabee's comments, press secretary Jay Carney told reporters at the White House that it "sounds offensive to me and to women."
In private meetings and public speeches Huckabee has been offering a prescription for Republicans to expand their reach after losing back-to-back presidential contests. Chief among his recommendations is for the GOP to end the Republican-on-Republican fighting that has sometimes hurt his own political fortunes.
Huckabee's take on reproductive rights highlighted one of his many hurdles in expanding his appeal beyond Christian conservatives. As part of Democrats' national health care law, insurers have to provide no-cost contraception -- something Huckabee said was pandering. Religious groups, in particular, have opposed the measure as running counter to their faith.
"If the Democrats want to insult the women of America by making them believe that they are hopeless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing them with their prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government, then so be it," Huckabee said, echoing comments he previously has made on his Fox News program.
Female voters in 2012 sided with Obama over Republican nominee Mitt Romney, 55 percent to 44 percent. The GOP has struggled to win back female voters and Huckabee's prescription might complicate that effort.
Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz said Republicans would face irrelevance if they don't update their thinking.
"Mike Huckabee has no idea what he's talking about. If this is the GOP rebrand a year later then all they've gotten is a year older," Wasserman Schultz said.
Huckabee, who ran for the White House in 2008, is seriously weighing another White House run and has kept in touch with the party activists in Iowa and South Carolina who were with him last time. At the same time, he has been talking with allies who would help him raise money if he decides to run.
Advisers say Huckabee won't make any serious decisions until after he sees the results of the 2014 midterm congressional elections and how GOP candidates fare in races for governor. They say Huckabee is known among Republicans after the 2008 race and his Fox show, meaning there is no rush to start grabbing headlines as a candidate.
"Now, he's got money and he's got name ID. He's starting from a different tier this time around," said Hogan Gidley, a South Carolina strategist who ran Huckabee's political action committee and remains friendly with the former governor.
Some worry that his chance has passed or that Huckabee hasn't learned the lessons from the last campaign.
"Huckabee faces the challenges of recreating the momentum of 2008 in an era when new stars like Marco Rubio and Chris Christie have emerged on the stage of Republican politics," said Joe Brettell, a Republican consultant.
Huckabee's problems from 2008 remains and he has further broken from the party's ideology since.
His support of a proposal that rewards clean-energy companies and charges other companies for their pollution, and support for Common Core academic standards split from GOP orthodoxy. When he was governor, he gave clemency to a man who later killed four police offers, as well as a convicted rapist who later was convicted of another rape and a murder.
"Some of the challenges he had in 2008 will still be a challenge," said Mike Biundo, a Republican strategist who ran Rick Santorum's scrappy presidential bid in 2012.
That's not to say his hurdles are disqualifying. "There's no perfect candidate out there," Biundo said.
Some Republican quarters remain unlikely to warm to Huckabee. The anti-tax Club for Growth, for instance, spent $750,000 to dog Huckabee's 2008 campaign and seems poised to hammer him again.
To them, Huckabee appealed for party unity and urged them to drop the slur "RINO": "Republican In Name Only."
"Let's stop calling each other somehow less-Republican than someone else," he said.
He warned that the Holocaust began with such attitudes of superiority toward the old, sick and Jewish residents.
"You realize that the only way you can end up there is when you start with the idea that people just aren't as valuable as you are," said Huckabee, who will visit the Auschwitz concentration camp next week to mark the anniversary of its liberation.
Such close scrutiny for Huckabee stands in stark contrast from the early days of his unsuccessful 2008 run.
This time "the spotlight will be a little brighter," said Chuck Laudner, a veteran conservative activist in Iowa.
Huckabee's 2008 campaign left him broke -- he mortgaged his house and spent about $100,000 of his own money so his campaign could stay afloat -- so he set out to make money. After failing to derail Sen. John McCain's nomination, Huckabee hit the speaking circuit and published five books -- two on policy and politics, three on Christmas. He snagged a weekly program on Fox News Channel and a now-defunct three-hour daily radio program. He built a waterfront home in Florida and, for the first time in his life, had built up personal wealth.
That life would be hard for the former evangelical pastor to abandon for the grueling pace of another national campaign. If he were to run, he would presumably have to give up his lucrative Fox contract.