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04.15.11

Jon Huntsman: The Only Cool Republican?

Jon Huntsman is finishing up as Obama's ambassador to China, but his supporters are already crafting his "hip" persona—his motorcycle, cover band, youthful indiscretions. McKay Coppins on whether it'll be enough in 2012 to win Huntsman crucial under-40 voters, who swarmed to Obama in 2008.

If you've been following the political news over the past few weeks, these are the things you've learned about Jon Huntsman Jr., outgoing ambassador to China:

He drives a motorcycle.

He once played in an REO Speedwagon cover band.

He briefly dropped out of high school, where he hung out with kids who were "very active in drugs" (but he never inhaled!).

He had shaggy hair.

Since Huntsman first hinted at his presidential aspirations in an interview with me in December, he has spent very little time talking to reporters—much to the delight of his campaign-in-waiting. With their prospective candidate 7,000 miles away from the D.C. press corps, supporters have seized the opportunity to craft a campaign persona for him in a controlled environment. Through calculated press leaks—like last week's motorcycle photos and Politico's profile of the ambassador's "rock 'n' roll years"—supporters appear to be laying the foundation for a new, potentially risky Huntsman brand: the only cool Republican candidate.

If this is indeed the strategy, it would hew to the philosophy of John Weaver, a veteran Republican strategist and avid Huntsman supporter who worked on Sen. John McCain’s 2008 campaign before quitting. Weaver speaks often and ominously about a “ticking demographic time bomb” that’s working against the GOP.

"There's a cultural buffer between people over 40 and people under 40," Weaver told me last year. "We are driving young people away from the party."

Huntsman himself has argued in the past that building a Republican candidate who plays well to that under-40 crowd will likely require a decisive departure from some party dogma. The candidate will have to embrace environmental issues, for instance, and tack to the center on gay rights—both areas where Huntsman has demonstrated moderation.

But it also will require some shrewd messaging. Cue the motorcycle.

Of course, making Huntsman look cooler than his would-be Republican opponents shouldn't be too hard. The current GOP field, after all, doesn't exude hipness. Yes, Mike Huckabee has his bass guitar, but he's also packed on the pounds in recent months. (Love handles = very uncool.) Mitt Romney is good-looking, but his is a more Winklevossian handsomeness, one that corresponds with his boardroom demeanor. And then, well, there's Newt Gingrich.

Gallery: Politicians on Motorcycles

But actually winning over the youth vote is a whole different matter, and the ever fickle 18-to-29 demographic has always been difficult to advertise to. So I asked John Fischer, a 28-year-old marketing strategist at the New York City firm Fathom and Hatch, to lend his expertise.

After looking through the recently published Huntsman anecdotes, Fischer, who has done work for Converse and Sprite, hesitates to call it a slam-dunk.

"Are motorcycles and REO Speedwagon really the right touchstone to galvanize the youth vote?" he says. "Maybe not. Harleys and prog rock fit much more comfortably with the mid-40s crowd."

But more broadly, Fischer says he thinks the quirky personal details could appeal to young voters—if they ring true once the candidate hits the campaign trail. "When you talk about communicating with younger people today, really the most valuable currency is authenticity," he says. "The real, true, unguarded details tend to cut through the clutter."

And when all those "unguarded" details about Huntsman's youth are strung together, a personal narrative emerges that may be familiar to the so-called millennial generation. As a teenager, Huntsman dropped out of high school to focus on playing keyboard in his band, Wizard. He and his friends split time between practicing in a converted radio station in Salt Lake City, riding around in a Scooby Doo van, and dining at a grubby local restaurant called Bill and Neda's.

Such youthful aimlessness has become a defining characteristic of the modern twentysomething wandering through the American recession. And while Huntsman eventually completed high school and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, his story stands in stark contrast with the well-bred, ambitious youth of Republicans like Romney.

"I have a hard time seeing Haley, Pawlenty, Mitt, or Newt understanding or relating to younger people," says one soon-to-be Huntsman adviser who requested anonymity to discuss other GOP candidates. "His story in many ways mirrors the choices faced by the younger generation. Life experience matters."

The strategy could be perilous. A full-tilt grab for the youth vote might serve to alienate older, more conservative (and less "hip") Republicans, especially in the primaries. And there's a good chance it will prove fruitless. In 2008, Barack Obama managed to win over as many as two-thirds of under-30 voters with his hoops skills, spousal fist-bumps, and Jay-Z name-checks.

But Huntsman and his team have always known that the only way he will make it through the 2012 primaries is if his campaign catches fire in some extraordinary, unprecedented way. Maybe an energized base of young people will provide just the spark he needs.

At least that's what his supporters are hoping.

"In 2008, young voters saw Barack Obama as a vehicle for their own hopes and dreams," says the future Huntsman adviser. "Now that many of those people are disappointed in the president, we think the same thing could happen for Gov. Huntsman."

McKay Coppins is a reporter for Newsweek and The Daily Beast covering politics and national affairs. His writing has also appeared in The Daily Caller and Salt Lake City's Deseret News.