In a conservative field, Jon Huntsman struggles for footing
By Michael Leahy,
MANCHESTER, N.H. — As he brought his campaign for the presidency back to New Hampshire, Jon Huntsman Jr. anticipated the doubts about him. He alluded to it in his stump speech, about as close as he ever comes to acknowledging that some Republican listeners might question whether he is too moderate for their taste.
“I’m not trying to be everything to everybody . . . ,” he told audiences. “I’m running on my record. You’re not going to like 100 percent of it.” And then to dampen the effect of this admission, he aimed for humor, intent on persuading his more conservative listeners that it is all right to like him, adding with a grin: “My wife disagrees with some stuff.”
After a much-hyped launch, Huntsman has been running at about 1 percent in the national polls for months, leaving his advisers to try to ward off the impression that he is hopelessly mired in the second tier. Much of his campaign has gone awry early. His highly anticipated June announcement, set against the backdrop of the Statue of Liberty, was best remembered for the campaign’s misspelling of his first name on media passes. His first debate performance, panned by media critics and Republican observers, temporarily cast him as a bland, forgettable presence. “We know we are moving,” Huntsman insists.
Of late, he is trying his best to look tougher. Already far behind, he will not adopt the style of an old political friend, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, an early casualty of the race who made the mistake of waiting too long before aggressively engaging his rivals. In recent days, Huntsman has gone on a multi-front TV and Twitter attack against Rick Perry, castigating the Texas governor for using the word “treasonous” to describe potential monetary moves by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke, as well as for publicly expressing doubts about man-made climate change and evolution.
He next mocked Michele Bachmann for her promise to bring gas prices below $2 a gallon, arguing that her claim wasn’t credible. It was part of an aggressive effort to position himself as the race’s center-right Republican. But, like a light switch being flipped, his behavior over the next 24 hours suggested that being on the offensive doesn’t come entirely natural to him. On Monday, back to sounding genial and inclusive, he told CNN that he would be willing to serve as Bachmann’s running mate if she won the nomination.
To many of Huntsman’s Republican spectators on the campaign trail, his time as President Obama’s ambassador to China and the other less-conservative episodes in his career actually count for next to nothing, in part because they know so little about him.
“My attitude is, so what if he was Obama’s guy over there; that was in his past, he got out of there. But I’m looking for a guy who’s a good conservative right now . . . ,” said 47-year-old Christopher Dawe, who stood in a friend’s back yard at a house party for the presidential hopeful, in the bucolic town of New Hampton.
He had heard a capsule biography of Huntsman about four hours earlier from friends. “I didn’t even know who this guy was before today,” Dawe said. “My wife and I got asked if we wanted to see this Huntsman guy. I didn’t want to say, ‘Who is this guy?’ ” He shrugged, laughed. “So, okay, sure, why not?”
Amid his headaches, the presence of Dawe and other Republican fence-sitters at this event constituted a hopeful sign for Huntsman. A longtime ink manufacturer worried about the future of small business, Dawe had attended Mitt Romney’s candidacy announcement at a New Hampshire farm in June, poised to back the national frontrunner. But he left uninspired, suddenly more open than ever to the possibility of a different Republican standard-bearer.
As Huntsman stood to speak, Dawe cocked his head and squinted, trying to decide what to make of him. With his telegenic shock of salt-and-pepper hair and checked sports shirt, Huntsman gives off a patrician air, the mien befitting a man who has a billionaire father who made his fortune in the chemicals manufacturing business, and whose connections aided Huntsman, once a high school dropout, to get into the University of Pennsylvania and enter the political world.
Huntsman was not a natural fit for everyone in this back yard, where some of the 35 curious spectators said privately that his association with Obama, while not disqualifying, would likely mean that their votes would go elsewhere. Nor would Huntsman’s low-key rhetorical style ever be a match for the fervor of Perry or Bachmann, in a year in which passion has been in high demand on the Republican trail. But Huntsman did his best to tick off positions meant to mark him as just as fervent as any other fiscal conservative in the race: support for a balanced budget amendment; a vow to slash federal regulations to jump start businesses; and a description of how Utah had adopted a flat tax during his governorship.
Quickly, Huntsman found the right chords with Dawe and some others in this small crowd, portraying himself as an everyman — a little rough-and-tumble, a hunter, a motocross lover.
Dawe liked what the candidate said about wanting to lower business taxes and, in cutting the budget, “putting everything on the table” including entitlement spending and defense expenditures. Dawe told Huntsman about his worries for his business and asked what he would do, once shrugging with faint disappointment at what he regarded as Huntsman’s lack of specifics. But by then Huntsman’s fervor had ratcheted up. Midway through his answers, Dawe became impressed by the candidate’s passion to “get government off our backs.”
“I don’t know, I just like this guy’s chutzpah — being tough and confident and saying anything he feels like — it seems this guy has more of that than Romney, a lot more chutzpah, and he still says the right things for me,” Dawe said.
He wanted to hear more, as Huntsman took another question. Huntsman glanced his way while talking, as if able to see the possibilities with Dawe. Maybe a convert could be won over here.
“It starts like this,” Huntsman observed later. “One handshake, one change of heart.” He added dryly, “Or it’s supposed to.”
The next morning, Huntsman found himself an hour away at a sporting-goods store in Hillsborough, surrounded by a small knot of spectators including several hunting enthusiasts. He went around to them, one by one, asking what kinds of guns and shells they liked.
“With a name like Huntsman, how can you go wrong in a place like this?” he said, delivering a standard line. “You get a BB gun at age 6, you get a .22 at age 12, you learn to shoot early.”
But it wasn’t his best crowd. Most of the spectators had less interest in economic issues than in pressing him about gun rights, testing his fealty.
A local man, John O’Brien, mentioned that he legally carried a concealed weapon.
“Uh-huh,” Huntsman said, nodding. “Good, good. Well, as someone who believes strongly in the Second Amendment, I —”
The man cut him off. “How about as president? How about a national law so you can do it anywhere in the country?”
Huntsman sighed. “I’d say, let the states decide.”
The answer didn’t entirely please O’Brien, who said, heading off, “I don’t know about him yet. Want a true conservative. Don’t know him really. Need to hear the others.”