Monday Night’s Missing Man*

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Seven Republican presidential hopefuls will take the stage Monday night at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. With the possible exception of Mitt Romney, none of them have as much riding on the Granite State as Jon Huntsman. And yet the former Utah governor will be watching the debate on television, capping a day spent in private meetings in Chicago.

It’s not as if Huntsman is ignoring the state that holds the key to his prospective presidential bid. This weekend marked his third trip to New Hampshire in the past month. “There will be plenty of debates. We’ll be in more debates than I think anyone will be able to stomach,” Huntsman told CNN’s Candy Crowley on Saturday. “We’ve only been at it five weeks. We’ve moved about as fast as you can move.”

During those five weeks, Huntsman has been laying the groundwork for a campaign that is now nearly certain to happen. (A final decision, he told Crowley, is “about a week-and-a-half out.”) He has courted donors around the country, donned his finest plaid at VFW halls in New Hampshire, climbed aboard a Harley, held confabs with the reigning wise men of the conservative intelligentsia, which yielded a series of favorable profiles. He is, as an aide says, “in the process of introducing himself.”

The coverage of Huntsman says as much about the political press corps as it does about the candidate. Relieved to be writing about a Republican who doesn’t dabble in birtherism or pander to the Tea Party — at least, not so far — reporters showered the new guy with praise, touting him as a top-tier candidate who possessed the requisite “seriousness” to win the nomination. And then, perhaps to hedge their bets, many of those same reporters invoked Huntsman’s anemic early polling numbers to argue that a “moderate” who backs civil unions and worked for President Obama had no shot in a radicalized GOP. In the Beltway, candidates are forever rising and falling. Stasis is not a story; the narrative must change, even if nothing else has. And so reporters and commentators cogitated over Huntsman’s soft-spoken style. His reluctance to slam his former boss became a sign of timidity. The not-yet-declared candidate’s decision to skip tonight’s debate became a “snub” in the parlance of Politico, which found a couple New Hampshire GOP bigwigs — who have a vested interest in promoting the importance of visiting the state — to question Huntsman’s decision.

None of this is to say the Huntsman skeptics are wrong. As Nate Silver pointed out, a series of recent polls revealed Huntsman’s high “unacceptability” index, a reflection of the segment of the party that will never forgive his decision to embrace stimulus money, or his prior support of cap-and-trade, or any other departure from current conservative orthodoxy. He has regularly scored in the low single digits in state and national polls. Plenty of pundits chuckled at a poll in which just a single Iowa voter said he’d support the former governor. “Numbers like these should argue strongly against placing Mr. Huntsman in the top tier of candidates along with those like Mr. Romney and Mr. Pawlenty,” Silver wrote. “Rather, I suspect that his odds of winning the nomination are no better than some of the ‘insurgent’ candidates like Ms. Bachmann.”

It’s certainly a fair argument. But it is simply too early to determine Huntsman’s pole position. Up to 70% of primary voters have no idea who Huntsman is. The type of voter Huntsman will target — fiscal conservatives, moderates and independents, voters weary of bumper-sticker bromides — has yet to tune into the race. And so neither the candidate nor his team are fazed by the early polls or the spate of stories that speculate he doesn’t have a healthy appetite for candidate combat. After Huntsman declares, he will deliver foreign and economic policy addresses designed to highlight his knowledge of international affairs and his experience growing Utah’s economy. At that point, the crux of the campaign will come into focus.

In fact, up in New Hampshire, the candidate has been offering plenty of sneak peeks. “Having run a state successfully, where you’ve got a track record people can look to and say, ‘Ah, the hottest economy in the country. The best managed state in America.’ That’s a pretty good track record,” Huntsman told Bloomberg Television. Huntsman is hoping that these are the things that will linger in the minds of Granite State voters next winter, rather than the pithy one-liner someone ripped off on a Monday night back in June 2011.

*With apologies to Gary Johnson, the former New Mexico governor who is running for President but was excluded by the debate’s hosts.

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