Jon Huntsman's 2012 presidential campaign was plagued by internecine feuding between advisers, debilitating disorganization and a late start by a mostly green candidate. But most damaging to the former Utah governor and U.S. ambassador to China was the perception that he was out of step with his party's base—too moderate, mushy, and effete for the moment.
“Timing is important,” Huntsman replied when I asked him recently the most significant lesson he took from the failed run he abandoned 15 months ago.
But as the Republican mainstream gravitates towards his worldview on issues like gay marriage, immigration, and even the war in Afghanistan, the 53-year-old Huntsman appears to be gauging whether he was a candidate ahead of his time—and if there’s space in the GOP for a Huntsman 2.0.
He’s begun dipping his toe back into the political pond—traversing the country at a brisk pace and delivering meaty op-eds and speeches that pointedly address the woes of his party.
"They want to see a vibrant two-party system,” he says of the universities and business groups that have extended speaking invitations to him. “And I think they're curious at how we might regain that diverse debate that the two-party system allows in this country."
But when asked if the reception he’s receiving indicates there’s an appetite for another White House run, it’s clear he’s not even sure of the answer.
“I don’t know. It’s way premature,” he said.
Another former top policy adviser answers the same question differently, but emphatically: "I don't know if Jon Huntsman is going to be president, but I do know the next Republican president is going to be Jon Huntsman in terms of policy.”
"Where the Republican Party is right now is where he was almost two years ago," offered another former campaign aide.
Take the tonal shift on gay marriage—where party leaders no longer talk of an outright constitutional ban, and instead focus on a states-rights approach. Or immigration, where Marco Rubio, a leading GOP presidential aspirant, is also the lead broker on a deal that would provide a pathway to citizenship for those who entered the country unlawfully. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul's ascendance has stemmed from his passionate resistance to ambitious U.S. military commitments abroad and his call to reform drug laws at home, a pair of positions espoused by Huntsman two years ago.
"I have no clue about what is in Jon Huntsman's future," said Mark McKinnon, the former adviser to President George W. Bush who co-founded the nonpartisan No Labels group that Huntsman now chairs. "I do think Huntsman's politics are more in line with a majority of the country, and that the GOP would be wise to follow his lead."
But his potency in a general election is irrelevant if he can't capture the passions that drive the brutish, and very partisan, primary process.
And Huntsman deeply disdained the rough-and-tumble, style-over-substance, process-obsessed nature of the modern campaign, according to aides. In essence, the politics.
In 2011, Huntsman returned from his ambassadorship in China as essentially a first-time candidate who had never waged a competitive race. (Running in Utah as a Huntsman is something like running as a Kennedy in Massachusetts.) He lacked basic political skills, and his unforced errors and muddled messaging unnecessarily antagonized conservatives.
He also shied away from taking direct shots at his opponents at opportune moments, an approach lamented by several of his aides, but one that underscored his wariness with the fundamentals of political gamesmanship.
"As a party, we've seemed to forgotten President Reagan's reliance on basic principles and problem-solving and have spent way too much time on tactics and spin and decisions made for the next election cycle and not the next generation and too often putting party before our country," he said during a recent 45-minute address at the Reagan Presidential Library.
Most frustrating, to his allies, was his inability to articulate his conservative policy achievements and expertise in a compelling way.
"I don't know if he's done the right job branding himself. He's moderate in tone, but I think on other issues it's more a discussion around proper role of government and states rights, which are conservative issues," said Utah-based consultant Greg Hartley, who served as Huntsman's deputy political director.
Another campaign aide was less forgiving: "He became a Saturday Night Live skit when he had the opportunity to be a very serious candidate," groused the campaign aide.
Some of this is left at the feet of the controversial senior campaign adviser John Weaver, who didn't respond to requests for an interview. But throughout the turmoil and staff upheaval, Huntsman could have chosen to drop Weaver and didn't.
"It's important for him to have people he trusts, a cohesive group. I don't think you really had that last time. He was pretty overwhelmed," said Hartley.
The critique of Huntsman as a political operator by his former staffers isn’t given with malice. In fact, many still deeply admire the man and hope he could morph into a viable contender in 2016.
But they’re also political realists who understand the competition he’d face next time would be at least as fierce.
Ana Navarro, who served as Huntsman’s top Hispanic liaison in 2012, didn’t even attempt to sugarcoat her brutal assessment of his 2016 viability.
"I don't know anybody who isn't a mental patient currently under treatment for hallucinations or who should be under such treatment, that seriously believes Huntsman would be a viable candidate for the Republican nomination," she said. "Jon would get a fraction of the support he got in 2012, which means it would be invisible to the naked eye without the aid of a microscope."
Even if Huntsman benefits from an evolving Republican Party seeking a bigger tent and has heeded the tactical lessons of his first run, one factor not on his side is time.
With a stable of new faces already barnstorming the country and cultivating high-dollar donors, Huntsman's window is shorter than others.
"He has to show he's grown from the process. The high-net donors want to find their horse early and want to be influential. He has to show he's offering new ideas, new leadership sooner rather than later before these people are committed to other candidates," said a former campaign aide familiar with campaign fundraising.
The most optimistic Huntsman allies are fond of noting that the last two GOP nominees were also tagged as moderates, and that Huntsman, could realistically punch through in early states like Iowa and South Carolina with a divided hardline conservative vote.
"The marketplace will determine that,” he said, when asked if a pro-gay-marriage Republican, such as himself, could be a viable 2016 GOP nominee, “and we have to decide whether we want to win or lose."
Long odds don’t necessarily preclude presidential runs. Above all, Huntsman wants to be part of the conversation—“ideas will drive people,” he’s fond of saying— and another campaign could facilitate the more attainable goal within a GOP administration or cabinet position like secretary of State. (Who among the 2016 aspirants would have a more useful perspective on the current drama with North Korea than Huntsman?)
Richard Quinn, a veteran South Carolina consultant and 2012 Huntsman adviser, said he remains a fan of the governor and would work for him again.
But he predicted Huntsman's success in the party could end up revealing more about the GOP than the candidate.
"Jon Huntsman's viability as a nominee is a measure of the learning curve of the Republican Party. He's clearly a voice for the future," he said.