In Iowa last week, Mike Huckabee's wife, Janet, seemed docile and shy, a model of marital devotion. She stood in the shadows behind her husband as he delivered speeches. When he worked the room afterward, she kept close, never straying more than a few feet. She greeted voters with a hushed and honeyed "Thank y'all for coming out." At a dinner with reporters one night, she kept quiet and tended to her husband, ordering him iced tea and clam chowder and nudging him when it was time to leave.
It is a portrait of reticence that would strike most Arkansans back home as unrecognizable. There, Janet Huckabee, 52, has long been known as a straight-talking, independent-minded good ole gal with a daredevil streak and a passion for the outdoors. Dubbed the "First Tomboy" when her husband was governor, she tracked bears, hunted rattlesnakes, fired a grenade launcher and jumped out of an airplane. To promote a conservation sales tax, she jet-skied down the length of the Arkansas River— a stunt that helped earn her a spot in the state's Outdoor Hall of Fame. She often charmed local residents with her exploits, though she could also alienate them when her plain-spoken style veered into irascibility and crassness. "Janet is going to tell you what she thinks," says longtime friend Anita McCauley Murrell. "She is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of person."
The fourth of five siblings raised by a single mother, Janet grew up poor in Hope, Ark. She was adventurous and competitive from an early age—partly a result of "trying to keep up with her [older] brothers," says her sister Susan Hinger. In high school, where she was a star basketball player, she began dating Mike Huckabee. They married at 18, only to discover two years later that she had spinal cancer and faced the possibility of ending up paralyzed and unable to bear children. "It was a testing of his commitment to me," Janet tells NEWSWEEK. "He took care of me, helped me learn to walk again, took me daily for six weeks to radiation therapy." (She recovered and eventually had three children.) When Mike was a student at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, he began pastoring at the first of several churches. Janet played the role of dutiful minister's wife—but with her own twist, frequently taking off on hikes with youth groups.
As Arkansas's First Lady, Huckabee was energetic and hands-on, climbing atop Habitat for Humanity construction projects and handing out her personal number to Hurricane Katrina evacuees who landed in the state. But she also came across at times as aggressive and churlish. Janet's low point: her run for secretary of State in 2002, in which she was "perceived as thin-skinned, even mean-spirited," says Janine Parry, a political-science professor at the University of Arkansas. Huckabee attacked her opponent over a past DWI conviction and suggested, without verification, that he still had a drinking problem. Responding to critics who questioned her use of state vehicles and troopers to campaign, she told The New York Times, "If it wasn't for the grace of God, I'd have shot a few people already." She got trounced in her race—voters saw her run as an unseemly power play by the couple—and nearly dragged down her husband in his re-election bid that year.
Given that experience, Janet's current restraint is understandable. She says she offers her husband advice, but that "making policy is really not my thing." Asked how she envisions herself as a potential First Lady to the country, she says that such speculation "is a little premature." Her focus is on helping her husband get elected—and enjoying herself while she's at it. "I've often been called the queen of fun," she says. That ought to sound familiar to the folks back home.