Jon Huntsman, rejected by GOP masses, seeks a boost from his elite base

January 13, 2012

At 5:35 p.m. Thursday, a black Chevy Tahoe rolled past men in raincoats walking dogs in sweaters in Manhattan’s exclusive Sutton Place. Before a dead-end sign overlooking the East River, the SUV turned into a gated entrance marked “Private” and delivered its passenger to a uniformed doorman.

After a brutal week in the Republican wilderness, Jon Huntsman Jr. had come back to his base.

“In order to finance the effort, you’ve got to perform,” said Huntsman, pausing to answer a few questions before heading upstairs to shake hands and accept checks at a high-dollar fundraiser here. Wearing a dark suit and red tie that allowed him to fit right in with the bankers swinging their umbrellas on the way home from work, Huntsman put a positive spin on his bleak political condition. “If you didn’t get some sort of head of steam out of New Hampshire, nobody is going to attend these things and want to support you.”

Huntsman, truth be told, hemorrhaged steam in New Hampshire and has had little to no luck rallying support in other primary states. But he can still turn to rarefied Republican pockets where his relatively moderate brand of conservatism and internationalist bona fides resonate, as well as to former Democratic donors such as Lynn Forester de Rothschild, a glamorous and die-hard Hillary Rodham Clinton supporter whose antagonism toward Barack Obama has led her across the partisan aisle.

Huntsman’s “dear friend,” as he called her, hosted the fundraiser in her 18th-floor apartment. Guests included a former Andy Warhol muse, Wall Street moguls and the global-warming activist great-grandson of Teddy Roosevelt. Among the members of the event’s host committee were past supporters of Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), former New York governor Eliot Spitzer (D), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and the progressive activist group MoveOn.org. (“Hillary partisan gathers Gillibrand supporters for a Huntsman fund-raiser,” read a headline on the Web site Capital New York.) Many of the event’s organizers testified to Huntsman’s integrity and superior qualifications. But when it came to his electoral prospects, they tended to speak in past, future and conditional terms.

“He ran out of time,” said de Roths­child. “I think one more week in New Hampshire, with the limited funds that we had, we would have been a strong second.”

Dan Arbess, a partner at the global financial services firm Perella Weinberg, said the flavor-of-the-month fluctuations in the Republican race gave Huntsman some hope. “Does this mean that he is going to win the nomination? Probably not,” said Arbess, a host committee member and self-described centrist who supported Obama in 2008. “But Jon Huntsman has elevated the quality of this whole process — that will benefit our democracy but also governor Huntsman’s most assuredly promising future.”

Nancy Lieberman, a partner at the New York-based law firm Skadden Arps who met Huntsman decades ago when she began handling mergers and acquisitions for his father’s company, said that, from her perch on the campaign’s finance committee, she had hoped Mitt Romney wouldn’t compete in Iowa. “Had Romney just stuck with his game plan and not competed in Iowa, the dynamic would have been very, very different,” she said. “It would have been Huntsman versus Romney in New Hampshire.”

For his part, Huntsman said he was focused on the short-term task ahead.

“I wish I were a clairvoyant or a good strategic planner — I’m not,” he said before stepping into the marble lobby. “It’s a situation where you go one state at a time, and you’ve got to perform in each state in order to move on.”

The former Utah governor didn’t bother competing in Iowa and bet his candidacy on New Hampshire, where voters handed him a crushing third-place finish. He now faces the unsympathetic terrain of socially conservative South Carolina and is reduced to counting on his wife’s Orlando roots for a “leg up” in Florida. His billionaire father apparently sees no point in bundling more checks or fueling a super PAC to keep his son’s aspirations afloat.

* * *

Around 6:30 p.m., guests started arriving.

Joseph Bentivegna, an ophthalmologist and moderate, expressed some surprise at the relatively high quotient of former Democratic donors at the Republican presidential fundraiser. “I know there are a lot of Democrats here, and I don’t understand that,” he said before taking out an envelope full of copies of an article headlined “Catastrophic Health Care, For All.” He said the Republicans were nuts for wanting to repeal what they call “Obamacare.”

A few minutes later, a maroon Lexus with the license plate “Peaches1” dropped off Leonard Lauder, son of the late cosmetics magnate Estee Lauder. Praising Huntsman as “smart, sensible and moderate,” Lauder blamed Huntsman’s electoral travails on a “late start. Romney had a four-year head start. If you have a late start, it takes either a lot of money or a lot of momentum.”

A massive war chest no longer seemed in the offing, which left momentum. Lauder didn’t say how much of that he thought Huntsman had.

“I don’t know,” he said, shrugging and stepping inside.

On the 18th floor, about 50 people drank wine and munched on roast beef and vegetable spring rolls in the apartment’s living room. An original copy of the Chicago Tribune front page with the headline “Dewey Defeats Truman” hung on the wall. Guests said quiet fell over the crowd as de Rothschild stepped in front of the fireplace and spoke admiringly of the Huntsman family, with whom she traveled through New Hampshire in the back of two “dirty” Tahoes.

Huntsman’s wife, Mary Kaye, spoke next. She congratulated the campaign for spending only about $700,000 for the third-place finish, compared with the tens of millions spent by Romney and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who finished first and second, respectively. As she attested to her husband’s patriotism and willingness to put his country first by serving as Obama’s ambassador to China, she choked up. The others applauded.

Huntsman took the floor next and discussed his intention to cancel both the nation’s economic and trust deficits. But he steered clear of any criticism of the Republican front-runner, calling Romney, who is a major impediment to his future political ambitions, “a good guy.”

Supporters appreciated the effort.

“When you are as far [behind] as he is,” said Rene Pierre Azria, a French businessman, “you have to be convincing that you have staying power.”

The Huntsmans left the party around 8:30, and de Rothschild accompanied the couple’s three eldest daughters — who have generated more press than their father with their quirky Web videos — down to the lobby. As the young women sat cross-legged in the foyer, dangling their high heels under mirrors engraved with river scenes, de Rothschild offered her assessment of the state of the campaign.

“I don’t really care how this turns out. Well, I care about how this turns out, but I care about supporting the person who will be the best person for America,” she said. “I’ve been through that before with Hillary.

“I can’t support someone just because they are going to be the winner,” she continued. “I think Romney has been helped by that phenomenon of people figuring out who the winner is going to be.” If Romney is the nominee, she added, she will support him.

Outside the building, she helped the doorman hail a cab to take Huntsman’s daughters to an after-party at Marea, an Italian restaurant on Central Park South. As they climbed into the cab, the three expressed unwavering confidence in their father’s chances.

“South Carolina, here we come!” said Liddy.

“You know we’re Southern,” interjected Mary Anne. “My mom’s from Florida!”

Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Lifestyle