Huntsman tests GOP waters with a different kind of lure
By Philip Rucker,
NEWMARKET, N.H. — Jon Huntsman stood in a young couple’s living room here giving his spiel about a 21st-century America. He began by reciting in Mandarin an ancient Chinese aphorism about harmony in the family. He spoke so softly he had to hold a microphone to be heard. And by the time he finished a half-hour later, he hadn’t attacked President Obama. He hadn’t even mentioned him.
This is not your typical Republican presidential candidate. Not this year, not in the age of the tea party and bumper-sticker slogans and birth certificates.
Huntsman, the former Utah governor and China envoy, is testing whether Americans want a different kind of politician — someone who doesn’t yell but is a global thinker who can solve the country’s difficult problems. And he thinks he’s that someone.
“I think we’ll be defined by our style, which is natural, it’s truth-telling, it’s authentic, it’s who we are,” Huntsman said in an interview Saturday during a visit to New Hampshire, referring as he often does to himself as “we.” “Most people get caught up in the drama and . . . they miss the most important part for the voting public, and that’s just to give us a sense of what you believe and where you’re going to take this state and this country.”
On the stump, Huntsman says the nation is in “a deep funk — we’re depressed, we’re dispirited, we’re dejected. There’s no road map, there’s no game plan, there’s no one saying, ‘Get on the train, we’re moving.’ ”
But a key question for Huntsman is where exactly is his train moving.
No natural base
Huntsman has no natural base constituency. He’s moderate on social issues, conservative on fiscal issues, and, to some Republicans, he’s a downright traitor for having served as Obama’s ambassador to China and writing what critics call “love letters” to the president.
“I don’t think anyone can identify the existence of Jon Huntsman in this campaign,” said Michael Dennehy, a New Hampshire GOP strategist who is unaligned. “What is his niche? What is his strength and appeal to certain segments of voters?”
In the 2012 sweepstakes, Huntsman is the mystery man. He stepped off a plane from Beijing six weeks ago and into the control of a cadre of Republicans, most of whom had been assembling a Huntsman campaign without ever having met Huntsman. At first, Huntsman was said by one adviser to have been “shocked and somewhat reluctant.” Now, after visits to 12 states and “probably a thousand conversations,” Huntsman says he is ready.
“We’re basically approaching the finish line,” Huntsman said in the interview. “We’ve checked all of those boxes, and we’ll probably sit down one more time as a family this week and we’ll be off and running from there.”
Getting his wife, Mary Kaye, and their seven children on board won’t be hard. Three of the Huntsman daughters hopscotched New Hampshire this weekend with their parents, testing out Harley-Davidsons and chitchatting with strangers about their braces and choice of lipstick.
Huntsman is planning an announcement within 10 days, and aides said he would soon after deliver foreign and economic policy speeches. Last week he secured financial commitments from big names in Republican donor circles, including former ambassador David F. Girard-diCarlo.
The 2012 race appears as wide open as any in decades, with polls showing former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the nominal front-runner, with 20 to 30 percent support nationwide among Republicans.
Huntsman does not plan to compete in the Iowa caucuses, but he is instead staking his bid on a trio of states that come soon after. “There is a lot of blue sky for Jon Huntsman in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida,” said John Weaver, Huntsman’s chief strategist.
But Huntsman is still searching for his campaign legs. He has yet to distill his candidacy into a sound-bite pitch. His campaign remains a work in progress, with his senior staff scattered in California, Washington and Florida, where Huntsman would base his campaign. (Huntsman is now living in Washington’s tony Kalorama neighborhood, although he is planning a regional headquarters in Utah.)
And he’s not quite ready for prime time. He opted out of Monday’s debate in New Hampshire, the first major event of the Republican race.
But Huntsman’s advisers can already see how he’ll eventually fit in.
“When the Miss America pageant of electoral politics happens, which is the debates . . . and it’s a really cheesy set and red, white and blue everywhere . . . and there are these uncomfortable guys getting ready to eviscerate one another, there’s one guy who will stand there as radically different,” said Fred Davis, Huntsman’s media strategist. “He isn’t going to eviscerate anyone. He doesn’t have a fake, loud, podium-pounding hatred for anybody. He’s going to stand out because he’s an incredible breath of fresh air.
“That will either work or it won’t,” Davis said, “and I think it’ll work.”
In New Hampshire, Huntsman stuck with low-key crowds of 40 or 50. His advisers wonder whether he can win over 1,000 people from behind a lectern — and millions more on television — just as easily as he does in living rooms. That evolution, they say, could be the difference between winning and losing.
On the campaign trail, Huntsman often dwells on how America is viewed from abroad. “From 10,000 miles away, folks, let me just tell you that we lack humanity, we lack civility, we lack basic respect for which this country should be known,” Huntsman told one crowd.
He also sells himself as a listener and consensus seeker: “The most under-utilized part of the human anatomy for most politicians is the ear.”
GOP strategist Mark McKinnon, who is unaligned, said that Huntsman “speaks a language of inclusion, tolerance and diplomacy. Huntsman is unconventional and the un-cola of the GOP bunch. No one has ever done it quite like he is doing it, but that’s always how winners win.”