Huntsman bets on electability

It seems that a presidential candidate who launched his campaign without criticizing President Barack Obama and aims to run a let’s-get-serious campaign would be more at home on the “No Labels” line than running under the Republican banner.

But Jon Huntsman, who formally began his bid Tuesday testifying to the virtues of civility, is betting that GOP voters will ultimately want to defeat Obama more than just club him upside the head.

It’s the central assumption of Huntsman’s candidacy: electability will trump purity.

No, Huntsman is not going to drop the rhetorical daisy-cutters on the president in a way that will make the pulses of party activists quicken. And, no, he’s not a down-the-line conservative on every issue.

“What’s going to unite Republican voters in South Carolina is: Who do they think can win in November, who can beat Obama,” said Richard Quinn, Huntsman’s Palmetto State strategist. “They’re sophisticated enough to know that you don’t beat Obama by appealing to a very small base of folks who just hate the guy.”

Past GOP nominees haven’t met the right-wing litmus test and some even sought to run general election-style campaigns in party primaries.

George W. Bush and John McCain, at various times, both come to mind.

Huntsman’s challenge, however, is that he lacks some of the qualities that made the apostasies of Bush and McCain tolerable among Republican primary voters. Bush talked of his personal faith in Jesus Christ and came from a storied GOP family. McCain was known as a war hero before he became a politician and had been hawk in good standing for decades. Huntsman is a Mormon who talks of his faith as his “heritage,” is virtually unknown to most Republican activists and lacks the military credentials that could ameliorate his deviations from party orthodoxy.

Oh, and he just got through working in the Obama administration.

“In the Republican Party, it’s going to be a hard sell to nominate a candidate to go up against Obama who worked for Obama,” said former Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), a Mitt Romney supporter in 2008 who hasn’t endorsed in this campaign.

Todd Harris, a GOP ad man who is not working in the presidential contest, said Huntsman could find a difficult path in attempting to be the Serious Candidate.

“Huntsman would be the anti-Trump,” said Harris, alluding to the New York developer-cum-publicity hound. “Trump took off with the base because he never hesitated to hit Obama and sometimes to fight a little dirty. The base loved that. By all accounts, Huntsman wants to run a more cerebral campaign that focuses on policies as opposed to personalities. That can be tough in a crowded primary field that doesn’t typically reward nuance.”

But Huntsman ought not be immediately written off as a latter-day Bruce Babbitt, a presidential hopeful who makes centrist elites weak in the knees but actual primary voters yawn.

First, to say that the Republican primary campaign is “unsettled” is an understatement. It’s completely up in the air, with Romney a highly vulnerable frontrunner, a group of flawed challengers and some potentially formidable candidates still on the sidelines.

Given these conditions, a candidate like Huntsman who is articulate, engaging, has a team of campaign veterans and the ability to tap into his personal wealth to stay afloat could emerge as a contender.

“One thing that potentially enables him to do this is that he can self-fund,” noted Harris. “Candidates who have to rely on fundraising have to hit hard to generate enthusiasm with small-dollar donors. But if he can self-fund then there’s a path.”

And then there is New Hampshire.

Much has been written about how the former Utah governor could mimic the McCain 2000 strategy there and put together a coalition that mixes moderate Republicans, independents and Democrats. But Huntsman’s Granite State play is bigger than mere metrics.

His advisers, particularly former McCain strategist John Weaver, know that New Hampshire voters are won less by raw attacks on the opposition and more on the depth of a candidate’s thinking, their willingness to speak candidly and their lack of artifice.

It’s part of the reason why McCain won twice there and Hillary Clinton upended Obama there three years ago.

“People want to hear about the issues, they want you to be substantive,” said Gregg, who until earlier this year had been either governor, senator or a House member there for 30 years. “In New Hampshire, that’s always sold. A guy who is going to run on substance, be civil and go around and meet people in person is going to do very well.”

Huntsman’s hope would be that he can then parlay a strong New Hampshire showing into South Carolina success in the fashion McCain did in 2008.

It’s uncertain, though, whether Huntsman will have candidates to his right splitting the vote the way Fred Thompson and Mike Huckabee did then, though. What’s not in question is that should Huntsman come out of New Hampshire with momentum, his rivals won’t do as Thompson and Huckabee did with McCain and refuse to go on the attack.

But Quinn contends that the South Carolina GOP electorate is sophisticated enough to know a general election winner when they see one.

“There is this bias against South Carolina that we’re a group of Neanderthals too stupid to nominate a strong candidate,” complained the consultant, noting that the state has picked the GOP winner in every election cycle dating back to Ronald Reagan’s 1980 win.

And that is – in case you missed the message at the Statue Of Liberty – who Huntsman will model his campaign after.

“The single most popular candidate here in presidential primary history was Reagan,” said Quinn. “Did he wave his arms and yell and scream and say Jimmy Carter was a bad American? No, he was a nice guy with firmly held beliefs. That’s what Huntsman is.”

Should Huntsman make it out of South Carolina and down to Florida, though, he will face another conservative-leaning Republican primary electorate. And one where he won’t be able to count on the votes of independents and Democrats.

Florida Republicans are the bunch that sent their once-popular GOP governor fleeing out of a Senate primary and running as an independent in large part because he was seen as too cozy with Obama.

“There’s a segment of the party that has tremendous disdain for the current occupant of the White House and there’s no changing that perspective,” said Eric Eikenberg, a veteran Florida operative who ran former Gov. Charlie Crist’s campaign until he left the party. “I think it’s laudable that [Huntsman] wants to run a campaign that’s civil, and stay out of the fray. But having seen a Republican primary play out first-hand, there’s a segment of the party that wants to see bare-knuckle politics play out with
Obama. I don’t think much has changed since 2010.”

Huntsman is going to go hard in Florida, though, and is putting together a first-rate organization there. He’s basing his campaign in Orlando and is going to use the Presidency V straw poll there this fall to build up his organization.

David Johnson, one of Huntsman’s new strategists in the state, conceded that they were playing catch-up against candidates who have spent months or even years courting donors and activists in private meetings before officially running.

“That luxury was not there for us,” said Johnson. “He began campaigning once he got back.”

But Johnson said Florida Republicans will be won over by Huntsman for three reasons.

“They’re going to see him and hear about his record, particularly what he did on the economy as governor,” said the strategist. “Primary voters also know that the U.S. is not alone in the world, so foreign policy is key. And he didn’t just take a trip somewhere.”

And then there is another key question even the most hard-core conservatives will ask, said Johnson.

“Can he beat Obama?”


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