Signs of Life for Huntsman?

The former Utah governor looked mild and non-confrontational at the Orlando debate—but a poll shows him gaining ground.

09.23.11 5:03 AM ET

Jon Huntsman could have stolen the spotlight on Thursday night, but chances are he didn’t want to.

Per the rules of the Fox News/Google debate, whenever a candidate attacked an opponent by name, the target of the criticism was given 30 seconds to respond. That meant that if you wanted to get into a slugfest with one of the top-tier guys, all you had to do was throw a single punch and all of a sudden you were in the ring. Rick Santorum took full advantage of this rule, gobbling up airtime and elevating himself as he went after Rick Perry’s relatively moderate immigration record. Herman Cain enjoyed similar success by engaging Mitt Romney on the tax code. But Huntsman kept to himself.

On education, he was alone in tying school performance to global competitiveness (a position likely colored by his many years serving in diplomatic capacities abroad). When asked if he stood with the majority of Americans in supporting a tax on millionaires, he said simply, “This is the worst time to raise taxes and everyone knows that.” And while he did briefly trade blows with Rick Santorum on international relations, Huntsman stuck to one of the overarching messages of his campaign in arguing that in order for America to be strong abroad, it needed to have a sound economy. He sounded, in other words, like a standard-issue also-ran: articulate, smart, and a little bland—and that’s probably just what he wanted.

You see, this wasn’t supposed to be the next chapter of the Huntsman campaign. Last month, when the former Utah governor made waves by affirming via Twitter his belief in evolution and climate change, the punditocracy breathlessly knighted him the “GOP’s truth-teller.” They predicted combative debate showings as Huntsman sought to usher his party into modernity, a strategy that would set him for a 2016 bid, when Republicans were ready to do some soul-searching. 

Alas, the fireworks never really materialized, and eventually the national media—which had initially greeted Huntsman with a host of glowing magazine profiles—wandered off to greener (or at least more interesting) pastures. But something funny happened on the way to campaign obscurity: Republicans started to say they might actually vote for this guy.

In a Suffolk poll released Thursday, Huntsman surged to third place among New Hampshire primary voters with 10 percent of the vote—ahead of Rick Perry (8 percent) and within striking distance of second-place Ron Paul (14 percent). Granted, the polling sample was only 400 people, and garnering the support of 40 New Hampshirites in a single survey doesn’t exactly represent seismic shifts in the electoral math. But considering the fact that a few months ago you’d be hard-pressed to find 40 people in the entire state who even knew who Jon Huntsman was, the campaign deserves some credit.

So how did he do it? Apparently, while the press was busy writing about HPV vaccines and Ponzi schemes, Huntsman was talking to people in the Granite State—a lot of people. According to campaign spokesman Tim Miller, Huntsman has held at least 75 events in New Hampshire, and the campaign has reportedly been moving staffers out of campaign headquarters in Florida to add some heft to operations up north.

“New Hampshire is the kind of state where you have to meet somebody a dozen times before they’re ready to sign off,” Miller says. “It rewards retail politics, shoe-leather politics. And that’s what he’s been doing.”  

For Dave Currier, a former state senator in New Hampshire, it was Huntsman’s moderate record on social issues (like his support for civil unions), and his plan to overhaul the tax code that won him over. And he says he’s not the only independent-minded voter who has liked what he’s seen. He recalls the first town hall meeting he attended when Huntsman spoke in a college town.

“In that group there were Democrats, Republicans, independents, and probably communists, I don’t know,” Currier says. “He was very well received. He’s telling it like it is. That’s kind of the thing that’s turned me on to him.”

Over the course of Huntsman’s brief campaign, he’s tried making a national splash with media blitzes, and he’s tried grassroots local campaigning. The former may be more fun for the pundits to talk about, but so far, it’s the latter that’s actually moving him up in the polls. In other words, we probably shouldn’t expect any flashy debate performances from him anytime soon.