Despite his early frontrunner status in the 2008 race, the former New York mayor crashed and burned in a major way, and now almost nobody is taking him seriously as a 2012 contender.
And if you’re Jon Huntsman, that’s pretty ominous.
The former Utah governor, who many saw as a more likely candidate in future presidential races, instead threw his hat into the ring for 2012. And with his campaign failing to launch and victory appearing distant, Huntsman needs to be mindful that, even if he doesn’t win, he’s still fighting for future viability — if he would want to run again, that is.
After all, winning the GOP presidential nomination often takes two cycles.
Five of the last six non-incumbents to win the GOP nomination had run for president before and done well — John McCain, Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reaganand Richard Nixon.
Nixon won the nomination in 1960 before winning the presidency in 1968; Reagan finished a close second in 1976 before winning in 1980; Bush finished second to Reagan in 1980 before winning in 1988; Dole finished second in 1988 before winning the nomination in 1996; and McCain finished second in 2000 before winning the nomination in 2008.
All of these men used strong finishes from previous races to catapult them to frontrunner status before a future nominating contest.
Meanwhile, history is littered with formidable politicians who flamed out in the presidential race and had a hard time getting taken seriously after that. Former Texas governor John Connally, former senator Phil Gramm, former congressman Jack Kemp and now-Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) fall under that category. On the Democratic side, former House speaker Richard Gephardt suffered the same fate after his disappointing 1988 campaign, and Vice President Biden also is a great example, having seen his own 1988 campaign implode and being a second-tier candidate when he tried again in 2008.
“In a way, it’s a lot worse to not match the hype than to get in, grow a little and then stall out,” said one GOP strategist, noting several other candidates who flamed out and were never taken seriously again. “No one ever revisited the idea of Rudy, Wes Clark, Fred Thompson, Bruce Babbitt, Pete Wilson or Pete du Pont.”
In fairness to Huntsman, he’s not quite the well-known commodity that many of the names mentioned above were, and he’s relatively new to elective office. So while Giuliani’s flameout registered as a major failure, expectations for Huntsman are more temperate.
Many of these other candidates also started out much higher in the polls than the relatively unknown Huntsman, who is exactly where he started: at the bottom.
But GOP lobbyist David Norcross said there is still a bar that Huntsman needs to clear if he wants to be a serious contender in future campaigns.
“He needs — to use a sports analogy — to get on the board,” Norcross said. “Herman Cain is making more of an impression. If (Huntsman) could do that well, it might pass.”
Right now, Huntsman is at 1 percent nationally and is barely registering in polling in many of the early states. He has carved out a more moderate niche, trying to look like the adult in the room and hoping it works for him. But that same strategy may be preventing him from notching the kind of respectable showing that would keep him in the conversation for future races.
In other words, had Huntsman run as a more conservative candidate, maybe he would be doing a little better and at least looking like a contender.
Now, it’s hard to run a campaign with future campaigns in mind — candidates must completely devote themselves and keep their eye on the prize, so to speak, if they want to win — but at some point, taking risks to grab momentum in this campaign could jeopardize future runs.
Huntsman is relatively young — 51 years old — well-regarded, and has plenty of presidential election cycles in front of him.
And if he does want to run again and get taken seriously, he needs to do better than he’s doing now.