In this most flamboyant of presidential primary seasons, one candidate has been a study in understatement.
“If people, enough of them, hear our message, they will coalesce around it, and we will do fine,” former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr. said. “It may take a little longer than those who are willing to light their hair on fire onstage,or engage in crazy political theatrics, but that’s okay. We’ll get there eventually.”
Huntsman offered that optimistic assessment during an interview one recent afternoon in the basement of a church in Weare, N.H., as he prepared for a town hall meeting that, by his tally, would be his 118th campaign event in the state. The night before, the rest of the GOP field had debated on national television in Iowa. Huntsman had not been allowed to join because his poll numbers were too low.
Even if he is right that he could bring voters around “eventually,” it could be way too late, considering that the early-voting states in the primary will begin holding their contests in a few weeks.
Then again, plenty of strange things have happened this year, including the rise and fall in rapid succession of Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Godfather’s Pizza chief executive Herman Cain. Newt Gingrich looked like political roadkill over the summer; now, the former House speaker is at the top of most of the polls. And former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, still the establishment favorite, seems incapable of closing the deal with the party’s activist base.
Huntsman, 51, began the race with plenty going for him. His résuméis arguably the most well rounded of any GOP contender: popular governor of one of the reddest states in the country; Mandarin-speaking diplomat who served as ambassador to China and Singapore; executive in a successful family business.
Not to mention a multiethnic family — two of his seven children were adopted, from China and India — who look as if they stepped out of Vogue (which actually did a photo spread of them). And a billionaire father willing to bankroll a “super PAC” to support his son’s candidacy.
“You’re the only varsity player among all the Republicans,” retiree Michael Delaney, an independent voter, told Huntsman at his town hall event here.
Huntsman also has offered some of the boldest policy prescriptions. The Wall Street Journal called his tax plan, which would lower rates and eliminate nearly every deduction, “as impressive as any to date in the GOP Presidential field, and certainly better than what we’ve seen from the front-runners.”
Despite all that kindling, the low-key candidate has not ignited. When Huntsman has appeared on the debate stages that have made and broken so many of his rivals, he has all but disappeared.
The Gallup poll has shown a steady erosion in Huntsman’s “positive intensity” — the percentage of Republicans who strongly like him minus the percentage with profoundly unfavorable feelings. Indeed, he is the only GOP candidate whose score is a negative number.
Part of the problem, Huntsman said, is that many in the Republican base haven’t gotten past the fact that he took the China post in the Obama administration.
“I crossed a partisan line when I went to serve this administration, which was an outgrowth of my personal belief that you always put country first. People looked at that and they concluded that I had committed an egregious sin, and they then just sort of glossed right over us and went on to the next candidate,” he said.
Huntsman had some adjusting to do when he reentered the political fray after leaving the highly structured and decorous world of diplomacy.
“I moved from a very compartmented existence as a diplomat, particularly in China, where you’re thinking and speaking and acting in an environment that is just about as opposite an open political environment as you can find anywhere in the world,” he said. “I don’t know that there’s been anyone who’s actually made the transition before. Maybe Henry Cabot Lodge did, in 1964.”
That one didn’t work out all that well, either. Lodge, a blue-blooded Republican who served as U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, won the New Hampshire primary that year as a write-in candidate. But he never jumped into the race. The GOP nomination went to the fire-breathing Barry Goldwater, who lost in a landslide.
With Romney still unable to excite and Gingrich’s revival raising the prospect of a polarizing figure at the top of the ticket, some voices are urging another look at Huntsman’s conservative record.
“I’m starting to think I need to walk it back on my rejection of Jon Huntsman,” Erick Erickson, a blogger on Redstate.com, wrote last month.
Washington Post columnist George Will expressed a similar sentiment in early December: “Jon Huntsman inexplicably chose to debut as the Republican for people who rather dislike Republicans, but his program is the most conservative.”
If Huntsman is to have any path from the back of the pack, it is with independents, who are allowed to vote in New Hampshire’s Jan. 10 GOP contest. His advisers say they expect independents to constitute upward of 40 percent of that electorate.
“If we can prove the point here that we can rally enough support in a state that is really focused on grass-roots performance,” Huntsman said, “that will then convince people down-market that we are electable.”
Some recent polls have shown an uptick in Huntsman’s support in New Hampshire. But given how dominant Romney has been in the state, chipping into his lead will be an uphill fight, despite Republicans’ misgivings about the health-care plan he put in place in neighboring Massachusetts that looked a lot like President Obama’s.
“If you’re looking for a handsome, Mormon businessman with an Obama problem, you can vote for the one you know, or the one you don’t know,” said Andrew Smith, who runs the University of New Hampshire’s polling center.
Which is why a sort of common cause is developing between Huntsman and Gingrich. If Huntsman can nail down a good share of the independent vote and Gingrich can do the same with conservatives, they might force Romney to stumble.