The Huntsman surge! And Gingrich loads for bear

Fueling up at a Panera — salad, an apple, it’s JANUARY, the hairshirt month — I’ll try to post my two blog items from this morning, cross-posting from the (mysterious, hard to find) WaPo 2012 blog.

Here’s my ground-breaking piece on Jon Huntsman:

PETERBOROUGH, N.H.— Time for the Huntsman Surge!

Everyone else has had one. It’s only fair. The Republican electorate has been squeezing the melons one by one. Could Jon Huntsman be ripe?

The Huntsman strategy has banked on the notion that a candidate gets a ticket out of Iowa if he never shows up in the first place. Tuesday evening, as the Iowans were caucusing, Huntsman held a town hall meeting in Peterborough, a town nestled in rugged terrain about an hour’s drive west from Manchester. The town hall was bathed in red, white and blue floodlights that gave the impression from a distance of bunting.

Inside, the former two-term Utah governor and ambassador to China faced what might have been his biggest and most energized crowd to date. He stood in the center of the hall, surrounded on all sides by people in folding chairs, with more people along the walls and a few dozen in the balcony. He had taken off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. A good crowd energizes a candidate.

When a citizen asked Huntsman what his message would be to the winner of the Iowa caucuses, he paused for a moment, perhaps sensing that this could turn into the night’s sound bite.

“A message to the winner of the Iowa caucus,” he said. “It would be, ‘Welcome to New Hampshire, nobody cares.’”

Nationally, Huntsman barely fogs a mirror. The conventional wisdom says he’s too moderate for GOP primary voters. His service as President Obama’s envoy to China is viewed as a blot on the resume (in his stump speech he explains that he naturally served his country when called to do so).

In New Hampshire, though, his Santorumesque diligence – he said Tuesday night that he was holding his 150th public event in the state – has made him a familiar face and earned him third place in the latest statewide poll. (Romney has a commanding lead, followed by Ron Paul.) At the Peterborough event he boasted that he, and only he, has so far visited Lindy’s Diner in Keene, where every future president supposedly has stumped.

Huntsman is certainly attractive on the surface: He’s handsome, trim, with hair graying diplomatically. He’s got a gorgeous, sprawling family, including a trio of prepossessing 20-something daughters who have their own Web site, their own parody YouTube video and who showed up in Peterborough to help work the crowd.

Huntsman opened his stump speech by handing the microphone to his wife, Mary Kay, who gushed about her husband’s virtues: “He is common-sense reasonable. . .He is steady, he is consistent, he would never sell his soul for a vote.”

The governor took over and made his pitch.

“I am the underdog in this race. I need your help. You know what else? New Hampshire loves an underdog!”

He went on:

“This is a state that always upends conventional wisdom. The pundits come in, the graybeards, the analysts, and they say this is going to be the way it plays it out…and then the spotlight is going to be on you. Then you always rise up to the occasion, having done your due diligence.”

He talked about tax reform, debt reduction, ending corporate tax breaks and ending the war in Afghanistan, but in general avoided straying into wonkery. There’s an old-fashioned quality to his vocabulary – he says “darn,” and you expect any second that he’ll lob a “gee willikers.”

He said:

“We’re passing down this thing called humanity to the next generation – who we are, our values, our standing in the world, our economic performance – in this kind of shape? Give me a break!”

And:

“We’re driving a 1955 Chevy, trying to travel on the superhighway of the 21st century, wondering why we can’t compete.”

And:

“I am who I am. I’ve got a record I’m proud of. You might not like 100 percent of it, but look at it! It’s pretty darn good!”

When the gathering was over, Huntsman stayed until the crew had already begun removing the folding chairs. Mary Kay Huntsman told me that he’s a good listener – how many wives say that about their husbands? – and that at these events he will often be the last to leave the building.

She nodded when asked if there will be a Huntsman surge.

“He won’t be on the end of the stage here in New Hampshire,” she said. “He’s not a shooting star, he’s a rising star.”

--

And now, the Newt report:

CONCORD, N.H. — There has rarely been a major candidate for president of the United States as visibly seething as Newt Gingrich was Tuesday night after his fourth-place finish in Iowa, a trouncing that came just weeks after he had been leading in the polls.

So furious was Gingrich that, in addressing supporters, he refused to mention Mitt Romney by name — he referred to him merely as “a Massachusetts moderate” — and strongly hinted that he would arrive in New Hampshire with fangs bared and claws slashing.

“We’re not going to go out and run nasty ads,” Gingrich said. “But I do reserve the right to tell the truth. And if the truth seems negative, that may be more a comment on his record.”

But this morning a mellow, uncaffeinated Gingrich showed up in an overcrowded meeting room at the Holiday Inn here, and at first he seemed uninterested in doing anything other than be professorial. After some perfunctory taped music and an odd introduction by a supporter who said “fifth place is okay,” Gingrich meandered through a primer on the origins of our political system and the rights of Americans.

This was, it turns out, a discussion about education, and the former House speaker had decided that for this audience he would be a historian more than a political combatant. There were many students in the back of the room, missing school — and maybe wondering if there would be a test at the end of Gingrich’s talk.

Gingrich spoke about the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. He talked of Lexington and “the other” Concord. He annotated the back-story of the Declaration of Independence, with a reference to the Scottish Enlightenment. He said he was wearing a pin of the same type worn by George Washington at Valley Forge.

Just as the assembled corps of national news media expected him to pivot to an attack on Romney — or something to justify a “Wounded Newt On Loose” in a New Hampshire headline — Gingrich began discussing Capt. John Smith’s activities at Jamestown.

He reserved his political attacks for President Obama, and what Gingrich believes is a philosophy that will drive America into the ground.

“We currently have a president who believes in the radicalism of Saul Alinksy, who believes that the United Nations matters more than the U.S. Congress, who believes that redistribution is better than creating wealth,” Gingrich said. “There is a clear Barack Obama vision of the future. It is a Washington-centered, government-centered, very very authoritarian vision in which you and I area subjects and government is in charge.”

If Gingrich spared Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, when meeting with voters, he changed tactics abruptly less than an hour later when holding a news conference in an adjoining room. Here came Gingrich loaded for bear.

“Governor Romney was first an independent, then repudiated Reagan-Bush, then voted for Paul Tsongas, the most liberal candidate in the ‘92 campaign, then ran to the left of Teddy Kennedy in 1994,” Gingrich said. He continued on in this vein, saying that Romney’s health care plan as governor of Massachusetts used state money to pay for abortions. He said Romney “appointed liberal judges in order to placate Democrats.”

And although he didn’t acknowledge being mad about the battering by negative ads in Iowa, he did question his rival’s tactics and honesty: “Governor Romney ran a relentlessly negative campaign of falsehoods…The fact is, three out of four Republicans rejected him.”

So, not exactly “Congratulations Gov. Romney.”

Gingrich said a supporter had e-mailed him this morning with the observation that Romney had gotten 66 votes more than Romney did four years ago in Iowa, and each vote had cost Romney about $100,000.

Gingrich’s attacks on Romney were delivered in a cool, almost icy tone. He made a forecast about the days to come: “I suspect it’s going to be a very lively campaign.”

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."

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