As if the struggling presidential campaign of former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr. didn’t have challenges enough, it found itself on Thursday trying to tamp out the brushfire ignited by a report that his operation was beset by internal feuding.
The 4,000-word story in Politico — which focused on a sidelined volunteer’s complaints about the campaign’s top strategist — was distraction enough that the candidate was compelled to address it at a campaign stop in New Hampshire, a state crucial to his hopes of winning the Republican nomination next year.
Huntsman made it clear that he is standing by his top adviser, John Weaver, a veteran operative who is considered a talented strategist but who also has a history of generating turbulence in the campaigns in which he has worked.
“John Weaver is a critically important part of our team,” Huntsman said. “He’s our strategist. Has been from Day One and he will be. He’s a great friend, and he’s indispensable to this campaign.”
The report of a “blistering internal feud” was based largely on the charges of David C. Fischer, described in the article as a “longtime family friend” who had been involved in logistics for the campaign until being asked by Weaver to give up that post.
Fischer described the campaign as “rife with dysfunction and internal squabbles” and said that Weaver was “the heart of the problem.”
The story portrayed Fischer as a Huntsman confidant who had been told he would play the role of trusted counselor to the candidate. It quoted a Huntsman e-mail in which the candidate wrote to Fischer: “I love you like a brother.”
But campaign aides insisted Thursday that Fischer was not a particularly close friend or adviser. They said Fischer and the candidate had been out of touch for more than a decade before Huntsman returned to the United States after serving as U.S. ambassador to China in the Obama administration. The two got reacquainted when Fischer offered to pitch in with Huntsman’s presidential campaign.
Fischer’s previous experience included a stint as a personal aide to Ronald Reagan during his presidency.
“He was Reagan’s shadow. He’s not political, and I don’t think he understands the process,” said Stuart Spencer, a political consultant who helped manage Reagan’s 1980 presidential bid. “He was never in any campaign that I know of.”
Fischer did not return a call for comment.
Weaver has been a controversial figure in past campaigns and has parted ways with some — most notably with his longtime client John McCain, when his presidential operation was out of money and melting down in the summer of 2007. McCain ultimately got back on his feet and won the 2008 Republican nomination.
But Weaver also has what is regarded as a gift for recognizing and maximizing the political appeal of contrarian outsiders. In Michigan last year, he helped guide businessman and political novice Rick Snyder (R) into the governor’s office with a campaign that branded Snyder as “one tough nerd.”
While faltering political campaigns are often beset by internal strife, that would not appear to be Huntsman’s biggest problem at this early stage of the campaign season.
It remains to be shown whether, in this polarized and superheated political climate, a candidate who is offering himself as a conciliator can find much traction in a Republican primary. Huntsman barely registers in the polls and has not raised much money.
So the former Utah governor has been sharpening his operation and his message.
Huntsman has spent the past few days in New Hampshire, where he has a campaign staff nearly triple that of front-runner Mitt Romney. He has stepped up his criticisms of his chief rival, suggesting that the former Massachusetts governor showed timidity in not taking a clear stand on the debt-ceiling debate until after the deal was struck.
“It’s easy to take a political position later on. It’s tough to take a position early on, which is the real world,” Huntsman said at a campaign stop in New Hampshire. “These are real-world issues, and leaders step up and they take on these real-world issues and make decisions.”
Huntsman was alone among the major GOP contenders in supporting the deal.
He will make his debate debut next week in Iowa. But, like Romney, he is skipping the straw poll in Ames two days later — a sign he is not seriously contesting the state where the first presidential contest will be held. This weekend, he heads to South Carolina, another early state, where he will appear with Rep. Tim Scott in a tea party town hall.
Running a presidential campaign “is incredibly challenging and nearly impossible under the best of circumstances. It requires a lot of experience, a strong hand and a forceful personality — which describes John Weaver,” said political consultant Mark McKinnon, who worked with Weaver on McCain’s campaign. “All presidential efforts have internal drama. The question is how they handle it.”