Why Jon Huntsman Could Be Newt’s Most Important Ally

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In my magazine story this week, Newt Gingrich told me he plans to run a positive campaign, modeled after Ronald Reagan’s 1980 primary candidacy. This may come as a relief to Mitt Romney, who surely doesn’t relish being the victim of Newt’s political martial arts. But it’s possible that someone else will do that dirty work for Newt, potentially making his path to the nomination much easier than it now seems. That someone would be Jon Huntsman. The former Utah governor is campaigning hard in New Hampshire, where he has staked what remains of his presidential hopes. It’s still difficult to see Huntsman winning the Granite State’s primary, even if the state is famous for late surges, and Huntsman surely knows that. But Huntsman is surely eager to avoid the humiliation of a single-digit finish there, giving him an incentive to take on Romney–the state’s clear front-runner, and someone whose supporters tend to be moderates who may also be inclined to back Huntsman. And while Huntsman’s campaign lacks the cash for the television advertising assault required to do that, the unregulated SuperPAC supporting him could be his savior–that is, if Huntsman’s billionaire dad decides it’s worth spending big to rescue his son’s pride and future political prospects. The PAC has already launched a substantial positive ad campaign; let’s see whether it delivers an even bigger ad blitz in the weeks ahead, possibly including ones tearing into Romney’s hide.

That could be a problem for Romneyland. New Hampshire has long seemed a buffer for Romney against the likelihood that some other candidate emerges victorious in Iowa, where Romney hasn’t put up much of a fight. The same was true for Hillary Clinton in 2008; her New Hampshire victory wasn’t enough to save her from losing the nomination, but it certainly prevented Barack Obama from landing an early knockout. But if Huntsman bloodies up Romney–who will also be suffering attacks from other candidates, no doubt including Rick Perry–Gingrich can rocket out of Iowa with a blast of money, publicity and momentum and potentially do to Romney what Obama failed to do to Clinton in New Hampshire one week later, on Jan. 10. Eleven days after that, on Jan. 21, the campaign moves to South Carolina, where Romney finished a weak fourth in 2008, and has been stuck for months between 20 and 25 percent of the vote. (“They know him,” the state’s GOP chairman–a Perry supporter–recently said of Romney, not intending that as a compliment.) Ten days after that, on January 31, is the Florida primary, and if Newt could somehow win there, he would  be hurtling towards the 2012 Republican nomination and awfully hard to derail.

When I was in Iowa this week, Gingrich’s spokesman, R.C. Hammond, told me that Gingrich now has six staffers in New Hampshire, led by a 29-year-old local Tea Party activist named Andrew Hemingway. Still, Hammond conceded Romney’s New Hampshire advantage. “It’s Mitt’s state,” he said. “We don’t own a lakefront house in Wolfeboro.” The Huntsman family may yet change that dynamic, however. Note to Mitt: Don’t leave Huntsman off your holiday card list. He may not be able to beat you, but he might just keep you from beating Newt.