Wayne MacDonald, the chairman of the New Hampshire Republican State Committee, has a general message for presidential candidates as the January 10 Granite State primary approaches: “Time’s a-wastin’.” MacDonald’s warning might as well be directed straight at Jon Huntsman’s New Hampshire campaign, which, for the time being, is Jon Huntsman’s entire campaign.
In late September, the former Utah governor and U.S. ambassador to China moved his national headquarters from balmy Orlando to frigid Manchester, recognizing that the sunny early days of the Huntsman campaign, when Joe Scarborough and Jacob Weisberg were fawning over this “different kind” of Republican, were clearly over. In Manchester, only the cold, hard truth remains. If Huntsman has any chance to win the GOP nomination for president, he’s going to have to successfully challenge Mitt Romney in New Hampshire.
And that’s what the campaign has been trying to do, with middling success. Romney can boast endorsements from New Hampshire power players like Republican senator Kelly Ayotte, congressman Charlie Bass, former senator (and former governor) Judd Gregg, and former governor John H. Sununu. The Huntsman camp, instead, touts its “advanced grassroots organization.”
“We have 140 grassroots leaders in 90 towns,” says spokesman Tim Miller. It’s a start, but it means the Huntsman campaign has had to make its ground game—what Sununu calls the “see me, touch me, feel me” aspect of politics—a top priority. Miller insists, “We’re going to outwork everybody in the state.”
Huntsman has been working hard. He’s made 12 trips to New Hampshire since the end of September, attending over 122 events. Mark McIntosh, a George W. Bush administration veteran and the campaign’s policy director, speaks positively about the growth of the crowds at these events. “We’re getting way over 100 people” at events across the state, McIntosh says.
But without support from the New Hampshire establishment, and without money (the campaign announced in October it was $1 million in debt), how does Huntsman actually compete against the Romney juggernaut? Huntsman needs to convince New Hampshire Republicans, particularly those moderate conservatives predisposed to vote for Romney, of two things: that a Romney victory on January 10 is not inevitable, and that Huntsman is the competent-conservative alternative to Romney.
To the first point, Huntsman has found an unwitting partner in the most recent anti-Romney candidate, Newt Gingrich. For now, Gingrich sits atop the national polls and is polling second behind Romney in New Hampshire, presenting the former Massachusetts governor with his most significant challenge so far. If voters are giving Gingrich a look in New Hampshire, maybe they’ll consider Huntsman, too.
That seems to be what the campaign hopes. After the influential New Hampshire Union Leader endorsed Gingrich on November 27, denying Romney a feather in his homburg, Huntsman put his own wishful gloss on the news. “I think it reflects more than anything else the fluidity, the unpredictability of the race right now,” he said on Fox News Sunday.
On December 12, Huntsman joined Gingrich at Saint Anselm College in Manchester for what was billed as a “Lincoln-Douglas”-style debate. Both C-SPAN and WMUR, New Hampshire’s only major network-affiliated television station, broadcast the encounter. The Huntsman campaign claims its website’s video stream received over 14,000 views. Afterward, Huntsman took the opportunity to needle Romney with an invitation to hold their own one-on-one debate. The Romney campaign has yet to respond.
The second, more difficult task for the Huntsman campaign is making the case for his conservative credentials. For his policy advisers, it’s been a monumental struggle to break the largely self-created perception that Huntsman is a moderate-to-liberal Republican. “I’ve been arguing since summer that this guy’s a hell of a lot more conservative than he’s made out to be,” says McIntosh. “That’s been a bit of a frustration for me.”
The strategy has been to emphasize to voters Romney’s deviations from conservative policy and politics while stressing a single theme, that Huntsman is a “consistent conservative.” One devastating web ad features video footage of Romney excoriating John Kerry in 2004 for flip-flopping on issue after issue, with clips of talking heads discussing Romney’s own flip-flops spliced in. The counter-message from Huntsman? “Consistency matters.”
Boyden Gray, a senior policy adviser and former official in the George H.W. Bush administration, points to Huntsman’s conservative positions on Paul Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” Medicare reform plan (he’s the first presidential candidate to explicitly endorse it), on school choice (he’s for it), and on abortion (he’s strongly pro-life). And on the issue of health care, Gray notes, Huntsman has a particular leg up on Romney. As governor of Utah, Huntsman rejected the idea of including an individual health insurance mandate in his 2008 reforms. “He didn’t have the mandate,” Gray says. “Romney did.”
So, is Huntsman’s New Hampshire plan working? At the beginning of October, he was stuck in the single digits in the polls, where he remained for most of the next two months. But a new poll from Suffolk University released on December 14 showed Huntsman in third place, with 13 percent support among Republican primary voters, his highest numbers in New Hampshire yet. That’s still 25 points behind Romney, but only 7 behind Gingrich. If Romney underperforms in Iowa and voters decide he isn’t as electable as claimed, maybe they will bolt for Huntsman.
Maybe. The inescapable truth is that there’s a lot of seeing, touching, and feeling left to do, and Huntsman is running out of time. Despite his intense focus on the state over the fall, Huntsman’s name ID there is floating somewhere in the “high sixties, low seventies,” according to Miller. Romney and Gingrich have near-universal recognition.
“Huntsman just hasn’t caught fire,” MacDonald observes. “He came in much later.” Romney was a presence during the 2010 elections, he says, and voters remember that.
The Romney campaign, for its part, doesn’t seem to take a threat from Huntsman seriously. “At some point, the fact that Governor Huntsman is an Obamaite at heart will be part of the mix,” says Sununu. “I don’t think people pay much attention to what Governor Huntsman says.”
Michael Warren is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.