Is Jon Huntsman a one-state wonder?

at 06:30 AM ET, 01/10/2012

Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman appears to be the momentum candidate in New Hampshire ahead of today’s Republican presidential primary vote.

Tracking polls conducted in the race show him moving up, he put in his best debate showing of the race thus far on Sunday, he’s up on television and he even won the endorsement of the Boston Globe in recent days.


Republican presidential candidate and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman answers questions from members of the media as his wife Mary Kaye looks on after a visit to a bakery in Nashua, N.H.. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
The fight for second behind former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney now appears to be between Huntsman and Texas Rep. Ron Paul. So, Huntsman now seems set to overperform the (admittedly low) expectations for him in New Hampshire.

But can he turn a second- or third-place finish in the Granite State into any sort of momentum heading in South Carolina?

No, according to most seasoned Republican operatives who have spent considerable time working in Palmetto State politics.

“Any candidate with an unexpectedly strong showing in New Hampshire gets a spike in public attention which tends to provide some boost in South Carolina,” said Jon Lerner, who is pollster and media consultant for Romney-supporting South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. “However, Jon Huntsman’s profile as the most liberal candidate in the field really limits his growth potential and makes him very unlikely to gain any meaningful traction.”

Others were even less charitable. “Jon Huntsman has a better chance of Obama re-appointing him Ambassador to China then he does winning a Republican primary in South Carolina,” said one veteran Palmetto State operative not aligned with any of the current campaigns.

The knocks against Huntsman, according to conversations with unaffiliated operatives? His time spent in the Obama Administration, his support for civil unions for gays and lesbians and his moderate tone on the campaign trail — none of which, they argue, is a good fit for the strongly conservative, evangelical voters in the state.

Huntsman has also not dedicated nearly as much time to South Carolina as he has to New Hampshire; according to the Post’s Primary Tracker, Huntsman has made 17 campaign stops in South Carolina, as compared to 158 in New Hampshire.

And unlike New Hampshire, where his polling numbers had been in the high single digits for the past few months, Huntsman is mired in the low single digits in South Carolina; in a recent CNN/Time poll in the state, Huntsman took just 1 percent of the vote.

Joel Sawyer, Huntsman’s South Carolina director, argued that his boss’s current standing means only that he has room to grow.

“When he comes to South Carolina, voters are not going to be taking a second look at him; they are going to be taking a first look,” said Sawyer. “Voters in South Carolina don’t know much about Gov. Huntsman right now.”

The Huntsman campaign’s optimism is largely based on what they believe to be the strongest organization of any candidate in the state.

“We have by far the best ground game in the state,” said John Weaver, Huntsman’s chief strategist. “I think from a ground organization perspective, we’re in really good shape. We just don’t have name ID, but we can fix that.”

Huntsman’s South Carolina team is remarkably similar to the team that won the state for Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) in 2008, with Richard Quinn serving as the lead in-state strategist for the effort. Even Huntsman’s main surrogate in the state — former state Attorney General Henry McMaster — played a similar role for McCain four years ago.

Still, it seems — at the moment — like very much an uphill climb for Huntsman in the state. Romney will do everything he can to consolidate the establishment/country club wing of the GOP behind him, while former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, former House speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry are all making an aggressive play for the evangelical vote.

That jockeying is likely to leave Huntsman left out.

Why Romney’s ‘fire people’ comment matters: No, Romney wasn’t expressing glee Monday morning at the prospect of firing his employees. But he did utter some words that are haunting him — or at least causing him a major headache.

The remark, which was in reference to insurance companies and not his time turning companies around at Bain Capital, was immediately seized upon by several of Romney’s opponents, and Romney’s campaign spent its final few hours before primary day explaining (and if you’re explaining, you ain’t winning) what he meant.

But the fact is that context can be subverted in politics, and you can bet his opponents will find crafty ways to do it.

Indeed, if you were to have woke up Monday morning and tried to surmise what the worst seven-word comment Romney could make that day, “I like being able to fire people” would be way up there.

The main attack on Romney right now involves his Bain baggage, and he gave everyone fodder to re-examine it with a poor choice of words. (In the YouTube clip, you could almost tell right away that he knew he messed up.)

This will be a key test for a normally error-free Romney campaign. But adversity can be beneficial in the long run.

Fixbits:

Santorum continues a hawkish tone on Iran, but says he would use a tactical strike rather than all-out war if the nation doesn’t allow nuclear inspections.

Santorum’s campaign is selling logo-bearing sweater vests for $100.

Tea party activist David Kirkham sounds like he will challenge Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) for the GOP nomination.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) remains popular in his home state.

Todd Palin backs Gingrich.

Mike Huckabee, no friend of the Club for Growth, is opposing the Club’s candidate in several Senate primaries. In Texas, he’s backing Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.

Huckabee and freshman Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) will host a presidential forum.

House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) floats Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.) as a possible opponent for Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). Redistricting was not kind to Dreier, who is considered a candidate for retirement as well.

Democrats in New Jersey’s state legislature seek to legalize same-sex marriage.

Must-reads:

Rick Santorum and the Huckabee trap” — Dan Balz, Washington Post

Gingrich, super PAC press Romney on Bain Capital record” — Paul West, Los Angeles Times

Supreme Court wrestles with Texas election case that could impact federal Voting Rights Act” — AP

Huntsman has momentum, but he lacks time” — Nate Silver, New York Times

Newt Gingrich veers from nice to nasty, with few advisers to guide him” — Amy Gardner, Washington Post

 
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