Jon Huntsman had the best day of his presidential campaign Sunday, with a stellar debate performance, polls showing him moving into third place, and large crowds waiting for him at each event he held across the Granite State. But will the late surge be enough for the former Utah governor to stay in the race, or is it too late to rescue his underachieving campaign?
Huntsman burst onto the national political scene in June, when he launched his presidential campaign with an ill-fated launch in front of New York’s Statue of Liberty, and his red-meatless speech landed with a thud in conservative circles.
Failing to catch on across the country, Huntsman ditched his well-tailored suits, moved his headquarters to New Hampshire from Florida, and went on to hold more than 160 campaign events in New Hampshire, where he now seems to have finally hit his groove.
Huntsman began the day Sunday with a morning debate on Meet the Press, where he pushed back at Mitt Romney for attacking his service in Barack Obama’s Cabinet and then zinged Romney for saying he would only support Republicans to improve the country. “This nation is divided...because of attitudes like that,” Huntsman said.
With the huge applause line behind him, he hit the campaign trail en route to events in Hampstead, Bedford, and Keene in a last-minute sprint to get undecided voters to pick him, and especially not the front-runner Romney, in the Tuesday primary.
In Hampstead, he leapt onto the counter of the jam-packed Beantown Cafe so that curious voters could see him speak. “This is incredible!” he said from atop the espresso bar.
After leading his audience through his “blue sky, problem solving” stump speech promising to rein in the deficit, create jobs, spark an industrial renaissance, and restore trust in the White House and Washington, Huntsman went back on offense against Romney in remarks to reporters outside.
“Let’s just be honest about it. I put my country first. Apparently Mitt Romney doesn’t believe in putting country first,” he said. “He’s got this bumper sticker that says ‘Proud of America, believe in America.’ How can you believe in America when you’re not willing to serve America? That’s just phony nonsense.”
Pam Saucier, a nurse and registered independent, held a “Jon Huntsman 2012” sign outside the coffee shop and said she decided to vote for Huntsman a week ago, after he held a town hall meeting in her hometown of Derry, N.H.
“His sense of integrity is probably the most important quality to me as a president,” said Saucier, now a volunteer for Huntsman. “I agree with him on a lot of his issues. He’s not high drama.”
But the qualities drawing Saucier and other independents to the former governor may be the ones keeping him in single digits with Republicans nationally. It’s hard to imagine the Tea Party-infused GOP of 2010 turning around and choosing a “no drama” former diplomat to run against Obama, especially after he served two years as diplomat for him (and Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, by the way).
On Sunday, Huntsman called for more substance-based campaigns for the GOP, a notion unlikely to catch fire with the base.
“We are sane when we stand up and talk about real solutions for the American people,” he said. “We are insane when we light our hair on fire, when we engage in political theatrics and sound bites that just don’t make any sense.”
Huntsman also has struggled to find common ground with less moderate Republicans on issues like climate change (he says it’s real), civil unions (he’s not offended by them), and relations with China. While Tea Partiers are showing a zealously protective streak on trade and investment, the Mandarin-speaking Huntsman has urged a more cautious approach to one of our largest trading partners.
If Huntsman has distinguished himself with any single voting group in New Hampshire and around the country, it’s disenchanted Democrats.
“I continue to be impressed with him,” Gordon VanHuizen said after meeting Huntsman at the Main Street Station Diner in Plymouth. “I think a lot of his ideas around economic policy, how to create jobs and decrease outsourcing, make a lot of sense.” Unfortunately for Huntsman this week, VanHuizen is a registered Democrat—from Lenox, Mass.
If Huntsman is going to break out of the GOP pack and make his move in this campaign, it must be in New Hampshire, a state that has more registered independents than Republicans or Democrats, and has a fiscally conservative, socially liberal electorate that should be embracing a candidate like Huntsman without reservation.
The equation for success has been made exponentially more complicated for him by two men, Mitt Romney and Ron Paul, who have their own claims on independents in the Granite State. Although he lost the state in 2008, Romney has worked for years to build a winning campaign in the state. With a sky-high name ID and summer house (yes, that counts) in Wolfeboro, Romney has managed to dominate the field on his second time around. Paul, for his part, has a libertarian philosophy that gives the state with “Live Free or Die” as its motto a run for its liberty-loving money.
Another factor that has slowed Huntsman’s progress in this, his first campaign outside Utah, might kindly be called a charisma deficit.
“The guy is very impressive, he’s got ideas that are bang on, but it’s the way he presents it,” says Gregory Slayton, a venture capitalist from Hanover. “He makes jokes people don’t get, his timing isn’t right. On paper, the guy is strong, but it may be too little, too late.”
But on Sunday, Huntsman said he thinks his timing is just right. “We’re moving a direction that nobody would have predicted a few days ago,” he said. “You just watch it.”
Pam Saucier echoed him. “I think he’s surging. It’s not too late,” she said. “If he doesn’t win, I don’t have a clue who I’m going to vote for.”