Buzzkill: The problem with Huntsman hype
From afar, it's easy to get swept up by the hype: Jon Huntsman is accomplished, handsome, smart, and his civility message has appeal beyond the meat-eaters who dominate this early phase of the Republican presidential campaign.
This is the reason his small base, largely in the media - the select group of pundits like Mark Halperin and the 'Morning Joe' stars, Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski - have been unabashed in their Huntsman swooning. We have our share of swooners here at POLITICO, too.
They see in the former Utah governor someone with the potential to remake Republican politics, and dislodge the Washington conventional wisdom that the main variable regarding President Barack Obama's re-election is the state of the economy rather than the opposing candidate.
But there is a problem: Up close, Huntsman's challenges as the supposedly 'electable' candidate for the GOP nomination are unmistakable - and, by all measures of modern Republican politics, likely insurmountable.
For all his obvious gifts, and his potential appeal as a general election candidate, it seems to us Huntsman has two even more obvious problems. He's got the wrong issues for a Republican nominating contest. And he's got the wrong persona, especially for this angry moment in GOP politics.
Don't get us wrong. We have nothing against political hype. Trying to understand Huntsman Fever - and not averse to catching a bout of it ourselves - the two of us this week traveled to South Carolina to watch him on the campaign trail and sit down with him for a wide-ranging interview.
The trip made clear the basic bet of his campaign: That by the power of his personality, and with a few lucky bounces early in the nomination battle, he can unilaterally repeal rules of GOP politics that have dominated for a generation. Our colleague Charles Mahtesian, laying out the case for Huntsman hype here, believes many of those rules might be obsolete in 2012. Our response: Fat chance, Charlie.
There's a reason he barely has a pulse in the polls. He speaks so softly that even his aides sometimes have trouble hearing him at events. He is making civility a cornerstone of his campaign, at a time when Republican voters are ravenous for red-meat conservative policies, and an epochal showdown with Obama.
The GOP base, sensing weakness in Obama, wants a brawler, the sort of Republican who prospered in dozens of races in the 2010 mid-terms. This is the main reason so many activists are clamoring for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to get in the race. Huntsman, by contrast, is running as a diplomat.
Huntsman, of course, worked for Obama, as his ambassador to China - a resume line that huge swaths of Republicans consider all-but-disqualifying. Huntsman likewise will pay a price among some uncertain number of evangelical voters for his Mormon connections, yet some Mormons themselves are put off by his rare attendance and effort to distance himself from the church. When asked about religion, he replies that he is 'a good Christian' who is 'proud of my Mormon roots.'
GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney, a disciplined and aggressive campaigner, could easily throw Huntsman on the defensive on the campaign trail, barring a radical change in Huntsman's laidback and even diffident style.
And, for all that Huntsman's case rests on his general election strength, there's no sign yet that Huntsman is ready to go round-for-round with Obama. The president similarly cultivates a reputation as a cerebral politician who pines for civility. But at key moments in 2008, he's proved himself a ruthless competitor.
Some have compared Huntsman to John F. Kennedy. But Huntsman could just as likely end up looking like former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, the Rhodes scholar and pro basketball star who had a golden image but was stiff and downbeat at retail politicking when he took on Al Gore in 2000.
There were warning signs throughout, starting with the interview, which Huntsman conducted on a sweltering patio because he said air conditioning gives him bronchitis.
It was one of several moments when we started to wonder about Huntsman's fitness for the rigors of a campaign that will go at least seven months and, for the nominee, 15 months. New York Times reporter Jim Rutenberg, one of only three reporters traveling with Huntsman on the second formal day of his campaign, wrote that the candidate 'has already complained about being tired.'
Huntsman's Obama affiliation is bad enough to give pause to most Republicans, especially conservatives. But you could imagine him having a route to the nomination if he were in a position to say, 'Look, I served my country, served a president of the opposite party, but I am with you on every important issue facing America in this election.'
He can't say that. In fact, he can't say that to a single wing of the Republican Party. He wants to retreat in Afghanistan even faster than Obama. He said he's not backing away from his gay-friendly stands: 'I've been a supporter of civil unions; I am today.' He said the stimulus needed to be bigger. That's all three legs of the stool knocked out right there.
Who, exactly, is his natural constituency in any closed Republican primary? For now, there is no electabilty argument. Romney is tied, or close to, or beating Obama in every poll. By the time Huntsman is well known enough to register like that, the primaries will be over.
His strategy rests on reaching independents as well as hardcore Republicans. But as the 2010 elections proved, a lot of those swing voters are as frustrated with Obama as the GOP base is. It seems questionable that those voters are not looking for another intellectual sophisticate with a bipartisan spiel.
In separate interviews in a 24-hour span, we sat down with Huntsman and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, to appraise the threat each might pose to Romney as things heat up.
Pawlenty, in a free-wheeling exchange with POLITICO's campaign team, was loose, even punchy. It's impossible not to see him as a likeable enough guy. But underwhelming. The caricature of him exists for a reason: he comes off as conventional in his thinking and approach. He will take a big hit in the press when he announces his anemic fundraising numbers in coming days, an amount that could be just 10 percent of Romney's total.
Still, Huntsman, at times, made Pawlenty seem downright electric. Huntsman's push for smaller government will be a hard sell, too. Most Republicans don't agree with his 2009 insistence that the Obama stimulus, the largest in the country's history, 'probably wasn't big enough.'
Charlie Crist, who in many ways shares the Huntsman approach to civility politics, learned the hard way how pro-stimulus talk can backfire. Watch this ad for a taste.
We asked Huntsman directly about his toughness gap: 'You [have] a soft voice, your policies aren't red meat. [People didn't walk away from your announcement speech saying,] 'He really grabbed us.' When you think of yourself as a candidate, do you feel like, 'I've got to grow. I've got to be able to pop with the audience. I've got to get people to feel that I am a fighter?' … Republican primary voters … don't like [Obama] at all, and they want to know someone can beat him, and that they have the fire in their gut. Do you think about that at all stylistically - how you come across and how you need to come across?'
'No,' Huntsman replied, to our astonishment. 'I am who I am. I've run a couple of races and run them successfully, and no one else in the state of Utah got 80 percent of the vote for reelection. … because we stayed focused on the task and did what we promised to do.'
Of course that victory came against a Democratic unknown in one of the nation's most solidly Republican states.
Huntsman continued, pivoting to face his questioner: 'I think, more than anger and more than tearing people down, people want a vision. They want to know where you want to take this country, and whether or not you've got the tools and the track record with which to do it, and we're going to stay focused on that premise. All I can say is: That's what we bring to the race, that's where we've been before, and we feel pretty good about it.'
But some top Republicans doubt that Huntsman's quiet confidence will be enough in a primary where the Republican base is energized about confronting Obama over his expansive approach to governing. A former Republican official, who remains among the nation's most powerful behind-the-scenes operatives, said Huntsman gets great buzz from GOP leaders but has virtually no chance of winning the nomination.
'I just don't know how this works,' the former official said. 'It's a great idea, and lovely and all that: He's actually intelligent, and has actually been outside the United States. He speaks Chinese. He's handsome. What's not to like? But how do you make it through this primary? It's a complete media creation so far.'
Among some senior Republicans, Huntsman is being compared to former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt, who surfed a huge wave of media adulation during the 1988 Democratic race, then flopped in Iowa and New Hampshire.
John Weaver, who built a campaign infrastructure for Huntsman while he was still serving in Beijing, maintains that his candidate has a clear path to victory, and is off to a strong start.
'We have the best organization of anybody running for president today, in South Carolina, which is hard to figure for a guy who's been running for seven weeks,' Weaver said after the interview.
'But it's the fact. And the same is about to apply soon in Florida. … Jon has a very conservative economic record, and yet he has the tone and the ability to appeal to moderates and disaffected Democrats, not dissimilar to what Ronald Reagan and other general-election Republicans have been able to do.'
Maybe so, but don't voters want more of a fighter?
'People don't want a brawler - people want their problems fixed,' Weaver responded heatedly. 'We had cotton candy … in 2008. We had carnival barking. But yet the problems keep getting worse …
'Now, is there going to be a sharp discussion of the differences between Jon Huntsman and Barack Obama? Absolutely. And will there be sharp discussion about the differences between Jon Huntsman's record, and his vision for the future, and Mitt Romney's? Absolutely. Can that be done without impugning people's integrity? Yeah - of course. That's what he's talking about.'
Alexander Burns contributed to this report.