The New Hampshire Test: Can Jon Huntsman Resurrect Big Tent Republicanism?

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Brent Clark / Wonderful Machine for TIME

Presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman campaigns at tailgate event before the University of South Carolina vs. Navy football game in Columbia, South Carolina, Sept. 17, 2011.

Henniker, N.H.

These days, Jon Huntsman finds praise in unexpected places. On a recent September evening, the struggling Republican presidential candidate spoke to a modest crowd at New England College. His pitch was sober. He appealed in gentle tones for political unity, less “yelling and screaming,” more “real solutions” for the country. He spoke at length about tax reform, natural gas conversion, our fading manufacturing base, and the complexities of dealing with China, where he recently served as U.S. ambassador. His references to President Obama were respectful. The event was everything a Tea Party rally is not, and it was hard to believe that Huntsman was even in the same contest as the likes of Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann. The audience noticed. “I think it would be an excellent thing for this country to have a mature, grown-up discussion about issues and solutions,” said Anne-Marie Irwin, of Peterborough, New Hampshire. “My concern for you is, you’re so sensible. How will you ever get the nomination?” The audience burst into approving applause. There was just one problem. Irwin, as she admitted to Huntsman, is not a Republican: She’s a Democrat.

Huntsman chuckled and told Irwin that he welcomed the support of all New Hampshire voters. “It’s not about rhetoric, it’s about who is the better candidate,” he said. And there is some recent evidence that voters agree: A brand new Suffolk University poll shows Huntsman with surprising 10% support in the state, just ahead of the national frontrunner Rick Perry. It’s a rare spot of encouragement for a struggling campaign, but Huntsman still has a long row to hoe. He probably needs to win this state to survive as a candidate, and yet the Suffolk poll shows Mitt Romney running more than 30 points ahead of him at 41%.

Who would have guessed? When the former Utah governor returned in April from his post as U.S. ambassador to China—a job some said a nervous Obama gave Huntsman to divert him from a 2012 run—he was widely proclaimed to be a formidable candidate. Instead, he has sputtered. Huntsman still registers less than 2% in most national polls. A summer poll in Iowa identified just one solitary Huntsman supporter in its sample. Meanwhile, his campaign has struggled with weak fundraising and what a former aide calls “daily drama” that has led to several staff departures.

Huntsman’s obvious intellect, impressive governing record and willingness to buck Republican orthodoxy on everything from climate change to the war in Afghanistan have earned him plenty of fans. Unfortunately, many of them, like Irwin, aren’t Republican voters. Some work in New York media– Vogue and Esquire have both run admiring profiles. Others are liberals, like the many dozens who re-tweeted Huntsman last month after he declared “I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.” This week Bill Clinton singled out Huntsman for praise, thanks in part to Huntsman’s rejection of Tea Party claims that the U.S. could risk a debt default this summer.

None of these accolades help Huntsman much among his party’s militant base, which has little tolerance for dissent. “Jon Huntsman is a ‘make love, not war’ candidate in a party that’s putting on its battle armor,” says Dan Schnur, who was a senior aide to John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign.

The problem is tonal as well as substantive. Though Huntsman has colorful attributes–he was once a rock-band keyboardist and loves to ride motorbikes—his temperate manner is more string quartet than rock-and-roll, more Vespa than Harley Davidson. He avoids soundbites and doesn’t concoct applause lines. The effect is solemn, not energizing. “He’s kinda boring,” says a former aide. “It’s the Pawlenty syndrome,” adds an operative with ties to a rival Republican, referring to former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who quit his presidential bid in August after his mild-mannered campaign failed to ignite.

Chatting on a picnic bench by the beach near Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Huntsman cheerfully insisted that it’s precisely his appeal to independents and moderate Republicans that makes him a potent candidate. “I think there’s something to be said about electability,” he said when asked about his Democratic admirer, Anne-Marie Irwin. “I won more Democratic votes in my re-election for governor than my Democratic opponent!”

First, however, Huntsman needs to defeat high-flying Republican opponents like Perry and Romney. His advisers say that he can still prevail in New Hampshire, and thereby reboot the entire race. The idea is that New Hampshire’s primary electorate loves a maverick in the mold of John McCain—particularly in a year when left-leaning independents have no contested Democratic primary to vote in. (Independents can register as Republicans and vote on primary day. Registered Democrats have to switch parties by Nov. 4 to cast a GOP primary ballot.) With his emphasis on pragmatism, “Huntsman is in the ideological sweet spot of the New Hampshire primary,” says Fergus Cullen, a former state GOP chairman who argues that the Tea Party’s influence in his state is has been over-hyped. Huntsman, who has not yet run television advertising, is still an unknown to most New Hampshire voters, Cullen argues, whereas Romney’s near-total name recognition only earns him around 35% in many polls, and even that support may be lukewarm. Meanwhile a Texan cowboy like Perry could have trouble catching on in a state of Red Sox fans. If Romney has a glass jaw, Huntsman might be the one to smash it.

That will cost money. But while Huntsman is worth millions, he hasn’t pumped much of it into his campaign, even as he’s struggled to raise money. His best hope may lie back in Utah. This summer, an executive at his family’s Salt Lake City-based company, Huntsman Corporation, created Our Destiny PAC–one in a slew of new loosely regulated political action committees that can raise and spend unlimited dollars on behalf of candidates. Our Destiny PAC could be a vehicle for Huntsman’s billionaire father and other wealthy family friends to mount a game-changing multi-million dollar ad blitz to give Huntsman a fighting chance in New Hampshire. It would be fun to watch: In August, Huntsman’s inventive ad man, Fred Davis, left the official campaign for the PAC—campaigns cannot coordinate with outside political groups—presumably to direct this media cavalry charge. “I think it’s safe to say that the SuperPAC is essential to his winning,” Davis told TIME. “His style of delivery is not as a fire-breathing dragon. We need heavy media advertising to get people excited about him and to get his message out.”

Some former campaign aides wonder if Huntsman has the mettle to claw his way to victory. “I don’t think he’s ever had to work this hard in his life,” says one. Another wonders if growing up Huntsman–the name is a golden brand in Utah–sufficiently prepared the candidate for the unforgiving national stage. “Being a Huntsman governing in Utah—it’s fish in a barrel. You don’t have to do anything other than show up.” It’s true that Huntsman can be passive on the stump, as when he allowed a questioner in Henniker to ramble on incoherently without finding a way to cut him off.

Some observers even wonder whether Huntsman might abandon his bid before the New Hampshire primary, particularly if his father decides against spending vast sums on a long-shot cause. That said, if Huntsman wants to keep open the option of running again in 2016, he may need to deliver a respectable showing this time around.

Huntsman maintains a cheerful optimism in the face of his daunting odds, insisting that Granite State voters are coming to see that he is the most electable Republican candidate: “We’re still a broad-based party, although we haven’t been reminded of that in a while,” he said. “I believe we have an opportunity to re-establish that big tent Republican Party.” Huntsman was buoyed by an endorsement from former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, who praised Huntsman’s “significant experience and statesmanship.” “We’re moving in a positive direction,” Huntsman said last week. The latest polling evidence suggests he may be right.

Still, it seems easier to find Huntsman fans than actual Huntsman voters. “I like him a lot,” Anne-Marie Irwin told TIME after Huntsman had finished speaking in Henniker. But was she really willing to cast a Republican ballot this winter? “Changing my party affiliation?” she said. “I’m not ready for that.”

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