Sarah Huckabee Sanders at Lincoln/Reagan Dinner at Harding University

Sarah Huckabee Sanders greets a guest at the Republican Party of White County's Lincoln/Reagan Dinner on Friday night at Harding University. The event was sold out. The 2022 candidate for Arkansas governor was the keynote speaker and took time to visit with guests after she finished speaking. Sanders also signed copies of her book, "Speaking for Myself: Faith, Freedom and the Fight of Our Lives Inside."

Sarah Huckabee Sanders had an answer Friday night for those who are saying that she is “nationalizing” the 2022 Arkansas governor’s race: “You bet I am.”

Sanders, who served as White House press secretary for President Donald Trump for nearly 2.5 years, told a sold-out crowd at the Republican Party of White County’s Lincoln/Reagan Dinner on the Harding University campus that Arkansas needs a fighter, “someone who will push back against the radical left.”

She is running in the Republican primary next May against Arkansas Attorney General to be the party’s candidate to replace Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

She said as she has been campaigning around the state, she keeps hearing the criticism, “Oh, there’s that Sarah Sanders, she is nationalizing the race.” She admitted that she is “because if you are not, you are missing what is happening in this country.”

“We have people who are no longer satisfied simply changing policy,” she said. “They want to fundamentally change who we are as a people, and we cannot allow that to happen. Our country is too great and the sacrifice has been too many to allow somebody to come in and change who we are at our core.”

Sanders said she is not afraid of the “fight in Washington,” where Democrats control the White House and both chambers of Congress. (The Senate is split, but Vice President Kamala Harris can cast the tiebreaking vote.) She said the only thing she is afraid of is “if we don’t have the right leader to wage that battle.”

Sanders is confident she can be the leader Arkansas needs and is confident she can win the fights against “the radical left” because she said she has been doing it her entire life “and winning and coming out stronger and better on the other side.”

She said just being a fighter is not enough, though. “We need a leader who can look forward and lead our state with heart and compassion. I am sick and tired of watching Arkansas compete at the bottom. I am tired of being 46th and 47th and 48th when I know we have the capacity to be first and second, but we need a real leader to take us there.

“We need somebody who can not only fight back against the radical left coming out of Washington, but somebody who can lead us forward and take Arkansas to the top, and I know I’m confident that I can be that leader that we need at a time when we need it.”

Sanders said one of the reasons she is running for governor is because she wants to make sure the path in front of her kids and the path of every kid growing up in Arkansas is “free and clear so they can run full speed ahead towards whatever it is that they want, because in American that is still the goal. It’s still the American dream.”

“It doesn’t matter where you start, you get to decide where you will finish,” she said. “Unfortunately, we have people in the country who don’t think like that anymore. They not only want to put hurdles in front of our kids, they want to rip that path up so it doesn’t even exist, and I refuse to step back and do nothing and allow that to happen. Not in our state, not in our communities.”

First mom

Sanders was introduced at the dinner by Republican Party of White County Chairman Billy Kurck, who said she graduated from Little Rock Central High School and then went on to Ouachita Baptist University. “Sarah is the very first mom to ever hold the job of White House press secretary,” Kurck said. “Upon her departure from the administration, President Trump described Sarah as ‘irreplaceable, a warrior, a very special person with extraordinary talents who has done an incredible job.’”

Some, Sanders said, do not know that she was only the third woman to ever have the White House press secretary’s job and the first mom, which she said “frankly, I find a little bit shocking. Not only because being a mom was a great way to remind me what my priorities were but it was also a great way to prepare for being the White House press secretary.”

When she started at the White House, her kids were 5, 3 and 1. She said that meant “we did chaos really well at our house. Being White House secretary was probably some days easier than being a mom to my three kids, so I think I was one of the few people to go to the White House to get a break instead of staying home and trying to keep our kids out of trouble.”

Sanders said one of the thing she learned growing up in a political family was “how important public service is.” She said her parents, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and her mother, Janet, showed her and her two older brothers firsthand.

“My parents drug us with them literally to every corner of the state so that we could see firsthand how important it is to have good people engaged at every level of public service,” she said.

Sanders said she thinks it was when she was in college when she figured out “it wasn’t normal to spend weekends and summers passing out brochures asking people to vote for your parents.” She said it was a lesson that had a “profound impact” on her and one that she wants to pass on to her kids. She said she and her husband, Bryan, talked about this and decided they would take their kids with them “as much as possible during their travels.”

Sanders spent a little time taking about “bring your kid to work day at the White House.” She recalled bringing her middle child, Huck, who was about 4 at the time, and it would mean he would have to make it through an entire work ay at the White House. Sanders said the plan was if things were to get a little bit crazy, she would call Bryan to pick Huck up and her “job would be safe.”

She said Huck had on his little bow tie and blazer and she said she took “about 10,000 pictures before 9 o’clock in the morning,” but she said she didn’t realize “the most memorable part of the day would come at the very end.”

Sanders said on this special day, all the kids gather in the Rose Garden and the president comes out and greets them and takes pictures with them. She said she reminded the president that half of the kids out there were reporters and he might want to watch what he says. When the crowd laughed, she said “that is pretty much the response he gave me, too.”

She said Huck popped out of the rose bushes and ran directly to the window of the Oval Office and pushed “his face completely up against the glass. I’m not sure if you’ve seen a 4-year-old’s face smashed up against glass in a while but it was pretty special.” She said the president, “clearly appalled, jumped back and said, “Oh my gosh, there’s a little boy looking in to the Oval Office.”

“I said , ‘Yes sir, that’s my son Huck.’ She said the president shook his head and said, “Oh, Sarah, at least he’s handsome.”

She said Huck did not want that to be his only mark on the day. As the president walked out of the Oval Office and all the kids were cheering and excited to see him, Huck ran directly to the president. “Full speed ahead, here come Huck.” She said the president crouched down like he is going to pick up Huck, but just before he got to the president, and right before she said she was pretty sure Secret Service was going to intervene to take him out, Huck sidestepped the president, “completely ignoring him before the entire crowd and ran high past him and jumps into my arms.”

“The president turns around and says, ‘Are you kidding me, this kid again?’ And I kind of shrugged my shoulders and I take Huck to the side. And I’m starting to explain to him how he has to behave if he still wants to keep coming to events with mom, when I realized, Huck shouldn’t be in trouble at all because for every other kid out there, the only person that mattered to them was the president, but for my 4-year-old son, the only person that mattered to him was his mom and that’s a pretty remarkable thing.”

‘Secret trip’

One of the greatest opportunities Sanders said she had during her time at the White House was traveling with the president on every foreign trip he took, going to nearly 30 countries.

“One of the things that I loved about that experience is what an incredible reminder it was and what a great blessing it is to wake up every single day and call myself an American,” she said. “We are so grateful and we should be so thankful that we have that opportunity.”

One of those foreign trips with the president Dec. 25, 2018, was “a secret trip to Iraq.” Sanders said it was unlike anything they had ever done before.

She said it was Christmas night and she had literally just tucked her kids in for bed and had cleaned up wrapping paper that “they had stuffed in every corner of our house.” She said she had to walk out on her extended family, unable to tell anyone else where they were going because the place where they were traveling to “was so dangerous that they did not want anyone in the world to know that the president would be on the ground, even for a few hours, yet we have men and women who live there, serving, sacrificing, missing every holiday with their family so that we can live free in this great country.”

Before finishing her story, Sanders said, “ladies and gentlemen, make no mistake about it, the United States is the greatest country the world has ever known. And the reason we are the greatest country the world has ever known is that we are the freest country the world has ever known. That freedom didn’t come free at all. It came from the sacrifice and service of many.”

This particular trip, Sanders said, they boarded the plane “in complete and total darkness, no lights on the plane, no lights on the runway. The shades were pulled down. Our cell phones were turned in’ we were going off the grid.”

When they touched down in the war-torn part of western Iraq, Sanders said it was a similar scene with no lights on the plane and no lights on the runway. The only thing that could be seen “was a glimmer of light from about a mile from where we had touched down.”

“The reason you could see light coming from there is a dining hall packed with hundreds of troops who had gathered thinking they were having dinner with senior military leadership,” she said. “They had absolutely no idea the president and the first lady were going to come into that room, and when they did, a scene unfolded that I hope I never forget: hundreds of troops from every different background, every political party, every demographic, every region of the country, shouting in one perfect voice, over and over and over again, ‘USA, USA, USA!’

“That is who we are as a country. The people in that room represent the very best of America, standing on the front lines, making sure we get to live in the greatest country the world has ever known in complete and total freedom.”

The president started making his way around the room, thanking each of the individual troops, Sanders noted. A young soldier yelled from the back and said, “Mr. President, I reenlisted in the military because of you,’ and the president said, ‘Son, I’m here because of you.”

Sanders said the young soldier came up to her and said, “Sarah, you have a tough job, and I thought, ‘Are you kidding’ I take questions, you take bombs and bullets.’ I was like ‘what I do is nothing,’ and in a moment I will cherish for the rest of my life, he reached up and he tore the Braves rifle patch that he wore on his shoulder and he placed it into my hand and he said, ‘Sarah, we are in this together.’”

She told the crowd “that’s who we are. That young man and everyone that serves alongside of him, everyone that has come before him and the thousands that we know that will be called upon to come after him represent the very best of the United States, and we owe it to them that they know that they have a country and a community of people who recognize their service, that appreciate their service. We will do our part to preserve it and protect it so that we can pass it down to the next generation because that is our moral obligation.”

“I can assure you, I will do my part in the fight for freedom,” Sanders said. “Not all of us are called to serve on the physical battlefields of Iraq. Not all of us are called to run for office, although I do think half of this room is but we do all have a part to play. We all have a role to play in the fight for freedom.

“No candidate for office ever wins on their own and if they tell you that they did, frankly, you don’t want them there because it means they don’t understand the sacrifice of those who have carried them across the finish line.”

Sanders said she has three little faces that will hold her accountable, her children, Scarlett, Huck and George, because every decision she will make if elected governor will have a direct impact on them and she said that is not a responsibility she takes lightly but one she relishes “because I know that I can be the governor and the leader our state needs at a time when we need it.”

“I am ready to take Arkansas to the top,” she said. “I hope you will join with me in that effort and I hope that we can continue to be the greatest country on the face of the planet.”

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