Jon Huntsman’s Task in New Hampshire

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Since returning from China, Jon Huntsman hasn’t done much beyond giving a commencement address, one interview and announcing that his campaign headquarters, should he run, would be based in Orlando, Florida. But he starts his foray into retail politics Thursday, kicking off a five-day tour of New Hampshire, which will include the typical visits to libraries, diners and the like.

Not nationally well-known to begin with, Huntsman has spent the last two years forbidden from any political activities in his capacity as ambassador and now faces the challenge of introducing himself to Republican voters and activists who, if anything, are only aware of his work for President Obama.

“The buzz around the state is that he worked for Obama and that’s all people know about him,” New Hampshire GOP operative told Chris Cillizza. “Only after he answers questions about his relationship with the President and his positions on Obama’s policies, and presuming Republicans are satisfied, can he begin developing connections with the state’s Republican activists, officials and voters.”

So, how will Huntsman distance himself from Obama and stake out a position in a Republican field uncomfortable with departures from party orthodoxy? “Huntsman will appeal to a broad spectrum of voters; he won’t be seen as a right-wing conservative. He is a strong conservative — the M-word doesn’t suit him at all,” adviser Richard Quinn told the Washington Post. The “M-word,” in case you were wondering, is “moderate.” It’s a sin just to say it.

If his first task is escaping Obama’s shadow, his second is to get out from under Mitt Romney’s. The parallels are obvious: both were generically hansome, moderate, Mormon, technocratic governors. They have a long history with a competitive streak. Both have conservative blasphemies on their records — Romney with health care and abortion, Huntsman with cap-and-trade and same-sex civil unions — and both, not well suited for the social conservative activist base in Iowa, will likely need a strong showing in New Hampshire to make a deep run in next year’s Republican presidential primary.

Huntsman’s advisers are well aware of the problem, but their solution so far, has been to play up Romney’s repuation for a somewhat robotic affect. “He’s like Romney, only with a personality,’’ Quinn told the Boston Globe. “He’s got a sense of humor, he’s got a twinkle in his eye, he’s comfortable in his skin.” Huntsman will need that charm and much more to make any progress during the dozen stops in the Granite State he has planned in coming days. Romney has been laying the groundwork for his presidential run for years; he’s given tens of thousands of dollars to key players in New Hampshire’s Republican party, and is absolutely crushing all comers in the latest polling from the state.

Huntsman’s campaign is just beginning, but he needs to break from Obama and Romney. New Hampshire is the natural place to start.

Updated at 12:18 pm