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11.09.11

Jon Huntsman, Tea Party Darling?

With Herman Cain flailing and Rick Perry failing, the Tea Party is looking for a new anti-Romney candidate. Could it be Jon Huntsman? McKay Coppins asks the movement’s leaders.

For Tea Party poobah Erick Erickson, last weekend was not a good one. After a week of watching Herman Cain bobble and blunder his way through a cringe-inducing series of sexual-harassment allegations, Erickson found himself in a bar with some like-minded buddies discussing the abysmal state of the Republican field.

Erickson, a CNN contributor who runs the influential right-wing blog RedState.com, had come to a grim epiphany. If someone new didn’t step up soon, Mitt Romney was going to win the nomination—and kill American conservatism in the process.

“My God,” he told his friends. “I think I might have to eat my ‘never ever vote for Jon Huntsman’ post.” They laughed, but Erickson tells The Daily Beast, “they’d come to the exact same conclusion.”

The barroom bull session was the genesis of a pair of RedState posts on Tuesday that argued it might be time for Tea Partiers to give Huntsman a second look. Those searching for a viable anti-Romney candidate are running out of options, he argued: Michele Bachmann flamed out long ago, Rick Perry’s dismal debate performances have all but sunk his campaign, and by the time Cain emerges from this mess of scandals, he’ll likely be too battered to maintain frontrunner status.

So could Huntsman be the Tea Party’s savior?

It would certainly seem like an odd choice. Everything about the former Utah governor’s campaign—from his unflinchingly erudite discussion of foreign policy to his brazenly pro-science tweets and his obscure music references—seems designed to alienate grassroots conservatives.

But Erickson, who once famously wrote that he would never vote for Huntsman, now blames the messaging on bad campaign advice from chief strategist John Weaver, a McCain campaign veteran who regularly sermonizes on the need for the GOP to modernize and moderate.

“If Jon Huntsman shakes up his campaign, gets rid of John Weaver, and really begins an aggressive push on his economic agenda, which is actually the most free-market of any of the plans out there, including Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan,” says Erickson, “I think a lot of conservatives would have to give a second look to this guy.”

“Frankly,” he continues, “conservatives didn’t really look at him the first time. They said, ‘The media likes him too much and he sounds like a liberal, so I don’t want to have anything to do with him.’”

Admittedly, much of this praise is backhanded at best, but the Huntsman campaign seems to sense the same opportunity Erickson does to make their candidate the preeminent anti-Romney contender.

“Lots of people in the race talk the conservative talk, but Jon Huntsman has a record to back it up,” campaign spokesman Tim Miller tells The Daily Beast. “He balanced the budget, tripled the state’s rainy-day fund, and signed a flat tax. Unlike Mitt Romney, who has taken whatever position is politically convenient, Jon Huntsman is someone all voters—including Tea Party members—can trust.”

The comments come the same day the Huntsman campaign launched ScaredMittless2012.com, a site designed to make Romney look like a slick flip-flopper who’s unwilling to engage on the issues. And they follow a series of recent Huntsman campaign maneuvers to outflank Romney on the right, as they did last month with the Ohio bill to limit collective bargaining.

If Huntsman starts running like a conservative, Erickson says, “I may have to really reconsider him.”

But will the rest of the Tea Party follow suit? The Daily Beast reached out to several national movement leaders to find out.

Mark Meckler, cofounder of the Tea Party Patriots, was left scratching his head at the suggestion.

“I certainly haven’t seen or heard anybody in the movement that has said, ‘Wow, Jon Huntsman has really impressed me,’” Meckler said. “Essentially what you hear is—nothing. I don’t hear his name coming up ever, negatively or positively.”

That said, he acknowledges that the Tea Party has yet to coalesce around a single candidate—a phenomenon he optimistically attributes to the movement’s mature prudence—and he seems to entertain the notion of a Huntsman-Tea Party alliance with a sort of casual curiosity. “It’s really hard for me to say,” he says, adding, “I think we’re still looking at all the candidates.”

Judson Phillips, founder of Tea Party Nation, was less diplomatic in his assessment of Huntsman.

“I don’t even know where Erickson would come up with something like that,” he says.

Phillips has endorsed Newt Gingrich, but he says he’d be OK with the nomination going to Rick Perry, Herman Cain, or Michele Bachmann as well—the real conservatives in the race.

“There’s a reason nobody’s paying any attention to Huntsman,” says Phillips. “For conservatives, he’s Romney Lite. He doesn’t give us any compelling conservative agenda, he doesn’t give us any compelling reason to come out and say, ‘Hey, we like this stuff!’ He’s not even charismatic. I don’t want to use the word smarmy, but I’m trying to think of a good word that might fit him.”

“I think a lot of conservatives would have to give a second look to this guy.”

What about that economic plan that Erickson—along with The Wall Street Journal and a chorus of conservative wonks—has eagerly endorsed?

“I haven’t been that impressed with it,” he says flatly. In the next breath, though, he admits: “Of course, I’ll also say I haven’t spent that much time paying attention to Jon Huntsman. It’s kind of like paying attention to Buddy Roemer. There’s only so many hours in the day. I don’t pay any attention to him, I don’t pay any attention to that Fred guy in California, because he’s a non-factor.”

“That Fred guy” Phillips is referring to is Fred Karger, an openly gay protest candidate who is known to crash press events and hand out campaign-branded memorabilia by himself. In other words, it’s not the kind of comparison the Huntsman camp likes to hear. And yet, as Phillips surveys the field, he sees Huntsman and Karger as one and the same in terms of relevance and viability.

“I don’t know anybody from the Tea Party who thinks that Huntsman registers anywhere,” he adds. “I don’t think they would want him in any position of responsibility in a new Republican administration.”

Sal Russo, chief strategist for the Tea Party Express, says he met with Huntsman campaign manager Matt David shortly before the campaign got off the ground and “pitched him on how important Tea Party support would be.” The meeting was amicable—Russo has known David for a long time—but he laments that his exhortations appear to have fallen on deaf ears.

“I think as a matter of strategy [Huntsman] has stayed away,” says Russo, who notes that while the candidate took part in the September CNN/Tea Party debate, he didn’t attend a single one of the 33 rallies the group held leading up to the event. “I think he’s made a mistake in not devoting enough time and energy to the Tea Party.”

Still, Russo is willing to throw Huntsman a bone. He says that his organization’s polling has shown that Tea Party conservatives are extremely concerned about nominating a candidate who can beat Obama—even more so than non-Tea Party Republicans. And if there’s one thing Huntsman has, it’s electability—there’s even math to prove it.

As Russo puts it, “I wouldn’t rule anyone out.”