"We need to find a new exit strategy for my life," Mike Huckabee often says in his stump speeches as he criss-crosses Iowa or New Hampshire or South Carolina.
The former Arkansas governor once carried upward of 280 pounds on his 5-foot 11-inch frame. But after a 2003 diagnosis of type 2 diabetes, Huckabee says his doctor scared him straight.
"If you don't make a lifestyle change, and do it quick, you're entering the last decade of your life," Huckabee recalls the doctor telling him.
Huckabee, who has since traded in his fork for front-runner status in many Iowa polls, joked that "in the Deep South you don't eat until it's deep fried. Everything you eat, breakfast, lunch, dinner, vegetables, meats, dessert, everything is fried."
Last week he told his story to medical students at the University of Des Moines.
"I embarked upon a very aggressive approach to try to make some lifestyle changes, which meant getting rid of fried foods and sugar, and starting to learn how to eat right and then slowly developing an exercise routine that went from zero exercise to eventually running four marathons," he said.
Huckabee has run two Little Rock, Ark., marathons, the Marine Corps Marathon in the Washington, D.C., area and the New York City Marathon. He is currently training -- thanks to his dual press secretary/trainer Alice Stewart -- for the mecca of all marathons -- Boston -- this spring.
What did this all mean for Huckabee? He told the students in Iowa, "I have not had any diabetic symptoms for five years. No medication; the doctor tells me that because we addressed it so aggressively and early that it's as if I have not had diabetes."
Perhaps because he has been through it himself, Huckabee speaks passionately about diabetes. In a broader discussion of health care earlier this month in South Carolina Huckabee points to the fact that "we're seeing things in kids that didn't exist 15 years ago, for example, type 2 diabetes. It used to be we talked about diabetes in chronological terms, juvenile and adult onset … juveniles are now getting adult diabetes.
"That's never happened before. Fifteen years ago, that didn't happen," he said.
He often challenges his audiences to the following experiment: to dig out their third-grade class picture and compare it to any third-grade class in America today.
"I promise you," he says, "if you'll take that little experiment I will never again have to convince you that we have a serious problem in this country with the next generation of children growing up to be the sickest generation that's ever lived."
Huckabee's personal experience not only changed his life but seems to have shaped his policy. "We don't have a health care crisis in this country" he says in his stump speeches."We have a health crisis."
His proposal focuses more on prevention than anything else. He uses the analogy of putting a fence at the top of the cliff instead of an ambulance at the bottom, or killing the snake instead of treating the snake bite.
In a video on his Web site, Huckabee says, "What we do need to get serious about is preventive health care instead of just chasing more and more dollars to treat chronic disease that is often avoidable."
So it seems the only question left is whether or not the once rotund, now reedy Huckabee can survive the political marathon to the White House.