Article corrected 12/5/11
First it was Michele Bachmann, then Rick Perry, Herman Cain and now Newt Gingrich. Republican voters have kicked the tires on most of the candidates in the field, sometimes twice. Jon Huntsman is one of the few exceptions. After a polished roll out, Huntsman’s campaign has largely faded into obscurity. He’s not polling the prerequisite 5% in Iowa to qualify for the upcoming ABC News debate. Despite the fact that his economic plan was the only one in the field lauded by the Wall Street Journal, his policy ideas haven’t translated to success in the polls. “If there’s a winnable strategy behind Huntsman’s campaign, nobody has been able to detect it,” says Larry Sabato, head of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “It says something when a candidate’s ‘daughter tweets’ are the most effective part of his effort.”
To figure out what Huntsman’s been up to, I dropped in on a house party last Thursday night in tony Bedford, New Hampshire. The party was hosted by Dan Byrne, 60, who owns a consulting company. Byrne is an independent who voted for Joe Biden in the 2008 primary and Barack Obama in the general election. Huntsman delivered his stump speech with his usual eloquence, noting his economic plan and his foreign policy experience as President Obama’s ambassador to China. Byrne was impressed. “He’s moderate, well balanced, statesman-like and very smart,” Byrne said. Byrne says he’ll vote for Huntsman in the primary but would be torn if the choice is Huntsman versus President Obama in the general election.
In fact, many of those at the party — at least the five of the half dozen I spoke with — were Democratic-leaning independents. The questions ranged from where the governor stood on abortion–the questioner was pro-choice– to the extent of his green jobs plan. For virtually any other candidate in the field, except maybe Romney, this group would probably have been an unreceptive audience. A frequent comment about Huntsman that night: “He’s the sanest one running.”
In any other early-voting state but New Hampshire, this room would’ve been exceptional. Republican primary voters tend to be red meat conservatives — just look at Iowa, where evangelicals and home schoolers can swing the caucuses. But Huntsman chose early on not to contest the anti-Romney, Tea Party primary.
For Huntsman, New Hampshire is all important. A surprise win would catapult him into the top tier and give him momentum heading into Mormon-heavy Nevada, South Carolina and, crucially, Florida. Which is why Huntsman has invested heavily in the Granite State. He’s spent more days there than Romney and Gingrich. Huntsman’s Super PAC, Our Destiny PAC, partially funded by his billionaire father, who has at times been criticized for pushing his son’s political career in a Joe Kennedy-esque way, has been airing ads there.
That said, Huntsman hasn’t been breaking his back. He’s averaged 1.87 public events for the days he’s been in the state — 107 events over 57 days — according to WMUR’s James Pindell’s handy candidate tracker. (The campaign disputes this, saying he’s done 114 events over 51 days for an average of 2.23.) He isn’t hitting the panic button as Wesley Clark in did 2004, when after months of lackadaisical campaigning — one or two events a day — Clark scheduled a dozen events a day in the final month before the primary. “I’m feeling the forward motion. I think it’s very real. I think it’s palpable,” Huntsman told me after the Bedford party. “Nobody’s doing New Hampshire like we’re doing New Hampshire this cycle. I don’t know that you could fit in any more than we do.”
Huntsman is in a better place in New Hampshire polls than Clark was seven years ago. He recently broke double digits, thanks in part to his Super PAC. He had his strongest showing yet in CNN’s recent national security debate. And both George Will and Erick Erickson have said in the past week that Huntsman deserves a good look. “Romney is today where he was in New Hampshire four years ago. His support is wide but thin,” says Mark McKinnon, a GOP strategist and former adviser to President George W. Bush. “If [former House Speaker Newt Gingrich] wins Iowa, New Hampshire could quickly turn into a three-way race between Newt, Romney and Huntsman. At least Huntsman is headed north instead of south like Romney. And the key is which way you’re headed going into the final weeks.”
Unfortunately for Huntsman, this path to winning New Hampshire involved a lot of ifs. Even in the sunniest poll, Romney is leading in New Hampshire with 34% followed by Gingrich with 24% and Texas Rep. Ron Paul with 15%. Huntsman comes in fourth in that Rasmussen survey with 11%. And even if he miraculously wins New Hampshire, his appeal to GOP base voters remains iffy. His staff says that the Bedford event was not Huntsman’s normal crowd and it was tacked on at the end of a six-day sweep. Still, it’s very late in the game to try to convince voters that Huntsman is the conservative guy in the race. To do that he probably should’ve invested more in Iowa, tweeted less about the GOP’s rightward swing and more aggressively addressed the fact that his most recent job was in the administration of the right’s No. 1 enemy, President Obama.
Some have speculated that Huntsman is merely running now to be heir apparent in 2016. But being next in line requires being runner up — or at the very least showing he can run a competitive campaign — in this election. The odds that Huntsman will leave the race second or even third in delegates is small. And he’s yet to show in his campaign schedule that he even really, truly wants the White House. So far, the most passion and commitment from the Huntsman clan is coming from the older and younger generations.
Correction: In the original article I mistakenly said Don Byrne was voting for Romney in the primary. He is voting for Huntsman.