“I am so ready for the Colbert Bump,” Jon Huntsman said Monday night, at the end of his awkward appearance on Comedy Central, which had involved several jokes comparing the nation of China to local Chinese takeout. “You may be at two percent,” Stephen Colbert responded. “We are going to get you up to whole milk.” Huntsman, who always looks physically smaller on television, had two thumbs in the air. He was smiling, but not exactly laughing.
In recent weeks, the Huntsman campaign has been let loose, which is another way of saying it is doing whatever it can to get attention. Rather than attend the last CNN debate, with its 5.5 million viewers, Huntsman attended a town hall meeting in New Hampshire, the last state where he has any hope of performing well. The idea was to very publicly embrace a boycott of Nevada, since the Republican Party there was threatening to move in on New Hampshire’s first in the nation primary. This was not the only stunt Huntsman has pulled recently.
When former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu endorsed Mitt Romney, a long expected and completely unsurprising move, Huntsman fired off an open “Dear John” letter, as if Sununu had just betrayed some moral principle. Huntsman wrote that he was “surprised” that Sununu believes Romney is conservative. This could not actually be true. Strategists in New Hampshire have long expected Sununu to break in Romney’s direction.
The challenges for Huntsman are twofold. His campaign originally hoped to run a moderate campaign that would unite independents and conservatives. He planned to go after Romney on matters of character—you know, flip flopper and all that. Now Huntsman has been forced by anemic polls to try to mount a campaign to the right of Romney in New Hampshire. Huntsman claims “straight talk,” like John McCain, but it is hard to square his claims to the real conservative mantle, with his initial branding as a different kind of Republican. Back then, in his presidential announcement speech at the Statue of Liberty, Huntsman had embraced a political absurdity: “I don’t think you need to run down someone’s reputation in order to run for the Office of President.” Now that path is his only hope.
As it stands in New Hampshire, Huntsman is polling at about 5%, behind Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul and Romney, who has about 40% support there. A New York Times/CBS News poll conducted days before Huntsman’s Colbert appearance found that he was polling at 1% nationally, or the same level the same poll found him in September. New Hampshire is a fickle place, so Huntsman can’t be ruled out. But the path forward is increasingly dim, even if he keeps doing whatever he can to get national attention.