While most of the Republican presidential candidates are gearing up for next week’s straw poll in Iowa, Jon Huntsman is tooling around New Hampshire and South Carolina.
He’s the only one backing the debt deal signed by President Obama, arguing that the United States should never have intervened in Libya, and standing by his support for same-sex civil unions. He refuses to sign campaign pledges touted by various conservative interest groups.
Huntsman zigs when the rest of the field zags. But if he thinks voters are looking for an unconventional candidacy, they have yet to prove him right.
Billed as the Republican most feared by President Obama in a general election, the former governor of Utah and ambassador to China is languishing at 2 percent in the polls. In part, it's the result of the candidate's lack of spark on the stump and a hastily thrown together campaign rife with internal disputes. But Huntsman's failure to launch amid such great expectations also reflects the increasingly monolithic ideology of the GOP.
At a time when the most conservative, tea party ideologues are dominating Republican politics, Huntsman could be the right candidate with the right message at the wrong time.
“I think we are in uncharted political waters,’’ said Republican strategist Mark McKinnon, a former adviser to George W. Bush who helped launch a non-partisan civic organization called No Labels. “The tea party is ascendant in the GOP right now, so bucking them takes courage. But most voters are looking for independence.… The question of course is whether Huntsman will be rewarded or punished in the primary for his willingness to stray from the flock.’’
A big test for Huntsman arrives next Thursday, when he faces his rivals in a nationally televised debate for the first time. The forum in Iowa will be the most high-profile opportunity for the candidate who promised “civility’’ to draw stark contrasts with his opponents.
“I think his performance over the next few days will be very important,’’ said Ana Navarro, a GOP fundraiser in Miami leaning toward Huntsman. “Most people have not been paying attention. This will be the first debate with a full slate of candidates, and a lot of voters will be seeing Jon Huntsman for the first time.’’
She added, “He’s got some catching up to do, but I think he’s got a strategy to do it.’’
A major distraction came along on Thursday in the form of a Politico story that detailed a disorganized, divided campaign staff and said at least four people, including campaign manager Susie Wiles, had left in part because of clashes with Huntsman’s chief adviser, John Weaver. Campaigning in New Hampshire, Huntsman called Weaver, a former John McCain strategist, “indispensible’’ on MSNBC.
“This kind of thing is pretty routine in presidential politics,’’ Richard Quinn, a top Huntsman strategist in South Carolina, said of the staff turnover. “We’re building a rising star, not a shooting star.’’
Nevertheless, the negative publicity will make it even harder for Huntsman to make his case to donors. A flat performance in Thursday’s debate would also keep him on the sidelines.
"Political donors and junkies who are the most active right now take this stuff into consideration,'' said Ovide Lamontagne, a former Senate candidate from New Hampshire who has been hosting the presidential candidates at his home. "Huntsman has got to reassure people that his house is in order, and what's probably most damaging is that if you can't manage a campaign successfully, it will be hard to make the case that it will be different once you get into office. Any controversy like this discourages supporters.''
Huntsman entered the race with notable assets: He had a record as the governor of Utah of cutting taxes and restricting abortion rights. As a former ambassador to Singapore and China, he was the only candidate with major foreign-policy experience. His good looks, personal fortune, and impressive roster of advisers immediately minted him as a contender.
But Huntsman also faced several disadvantages. He had met his campaign staff only seven weeks earlier when he returned from his posting in Beijing. He was brand new to the national stage. And Obama's appointment of him as ambassador called into question his loyalties to the GOP in the minds of some voters. So did his support for immigration reform and same-sex civil unions, even though the GOP’s former standard bearer, former President George W. Bush, also took those positions.
Amid mounting anger over the economy and Obama’s leadership, Huntsman was overshadowed by more hard-line and charismatic conservative rivals like Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn.
“It’s too early to say if this is the wrong time for a Huntsman campaign because there is nothing he has espoused in his beliefs or done as a governor that should make him unpalatable to the Republican electorate,’’ said Republican consultant Reed Galen, who is friendly with the Huntsman team. “People are really pissed off and they seem to like candidates like Bachmann who are breathing fire. I think his message will begin to burn through if he can show himself to be substantial and contrast himself with the rest of the folks.’’