It must be galling to former Utah governor Jon Huntsman to see Herman Cain soar into contention in at least one poll with Mitt Romney and Rick Perry. A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics Poll found Romney with 23 percent, Perry with 19, Cain with 17 — and Huntsman with 4 percent. That was oddly good news for Huntsman because he needs some standing in national surveys to stay in the debates and, as Rachel Maddow pointed out last night, Huntsman’s 4 percent should allow him to make it into the coming encounters.
But surely Huntsman never expected to be shown up by Cain, whose support shows just how — well, let’s be polite — unpredictable the Republican presidential contest is this year. Huntsman had hoped he would be the guy Republicans turned to when they decided they couldn’t fall in love with Romney and rejected the alternatives.
So now Huntsman is going with the only strategy that makes any sense. As Nia-Malika Henderson reported in The Post yesterday, he is putting all his eggs — a limited number of eggs, given his financing problems — in breaking through in the New Hampshire primary.
This is a good bet because it’s his only bet. Huntsman was always going to count on New Hampshire for a breakthrough. I’ve always thought he had at least some opportunity there because the Granite State primary is open to independents, who will have no Democratic primary that matters to cross into. Huntsman’s best bet is to run to the left of the current Republican field — there’s a whole lot of room there — and pick up crossover votes from independents (including Democratic-leaning independents) who decide to cast a protest vote against the rush of the GOP to the right. This doesn’t mean Huntsman becomes a leftist — his economic proposals are really, really conservative — but I suspect he will sharpen some of his rhetoric against the more extreme positions some of his opponents are taking.
When you are watching the coming debates, you’ll be right if you think that some of what Huntsman will be saying can’t possibly appeal to right-wingers. They won’t be his targets. Huntsman desperately needs enthusiasm among New Hampshire’s independents, and he’ll be aiming his rhetoric at them. Or at least that’s what I think he’ll have to do if he can find the discipline to go all the way with his New Hampshire strategy.