Report: Campaign that pushed dirt to reporters on Herman Cain and Mitch Daniels's wife was ... Jon Huntsman's?

To think, we’ve spent two years believing it was Romney that had the nastiest, most relentless seek-and-destroy oppo operation on the GOP side. Now I feel like Frank Drebin discovering the missing evidence in the Kelner case. My god — he was innocent.

If you believe the sources in “Double Down,” Team Huntsman feeding a mega-smear of Romney to Harry Reid was the tip of the iceberg.

In 1994, his wife Cheri left [Mitch] Daniels for a married man, but then the couple reconciled and remarried. “In the years since, she had never spoken publicly about the turmoil, and Mitch had done so only once – pithily telling the Indianapolis Star, ‘If you like happy endings, you’ll love our story,'” wrote authors Mark Halperin and John Heilemann.

But then, as Cheri Daniels was about to keynote a fundraising dinner for Indiana Republicans – considered to be a big step toward her husband throwing his hat in – “an official for another GOP prospect” leaked the phone number of Cheri Daniels’ ex-husband’s ex-wife, who called her “vengeful” and a “narcissist,” the book reported.

“In the Daniels orbit, all fingers pointed at the Romney camp, and in particular to [Romney’s campaign manager Matt] Rhoades, for shopping the ex-wife’s cell-phone and e-mail address to the press,” the “Double Down” authors wrote.

But, in reality, the person behind the leak was Matt David, presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman’s communications director-to-be, Heilemann and Halperin reported.

Meanwhile, Herman Cain recently blamed the publication of harassment charges against him on “the devil.” Almost right: That was Huntsman’s team too, per Halperin and Heilemann, although I’m not sure why they went to the trouble. The overlap between Cain supporters and potential Huntsman supporters must have been near zero, which makes their targeting of him seem … gratuitous. The allegations were first published in late October 2011, two long months before the Iowa caucuses, so it wasn’t like Cain was on the doorstep of sweeping to the nomination and had to be detonated for the good of the party’s chances in the general election. On the other hand, he was on top of the polls at the time (and then began to descend shortly after). Huntsman’s thinking, I guess, was that Perry and Bachmann had both soared in the polls up to that point on the strength of anti-Romney sentiment among Republicans before crashing to earth; now it was Cain’s turn and, in theory, eventually, it would be Huntsman’s turn too. Better to hurry along Cain’s crash, then, to increase Huntsman’s chances of being crowned the new “Not Romney” in the field in time for Iowa and New Hampshire. Minor flaw in that theory: Basically no one liked Huntsman, including the Romney-haters. If he had ended up as the last “Not Romney” standing against Mitt, Mitt might well have beaten him anyway. As it is, the big beneficiary of the Huntsman-backed hit on Cain was Gingrich, who began his own ascent as the anti-Romney in November.

The strategy behind pushing dirt on Daniels’s wife is more obvious even though it’s scummy even by normal oppo standards. They were competing for the same niche — moderate, accomplished red-state governor who’d impress the establishment with his pro-business, small-government credentials and who’d win over reluctant Anybody But Romney grassroots righties as a viable alternative. Daniels had more backing among GOP power brokers and the commentariat, though; if he jumped in, Huntsman’s odds of emerging as the anti-Romney in the race would have dropped from almost none to none whatsoever, so Daniels had to be taken out. Follow the timeline. On May 9, 2011, a Daniels advisor was whispering to the media that he thought Daniels wanted to run, pending his wife’s approval. Two days later, on the eve of Cheri Daniels delivering the keynote at the state GOP’s spring dinner, WaPo published a story about their relationship that mentioned that “an official for another GOP prospect provided contact information for the ex-wife of the man Cheri Daniels married” after she left Daniels in the mid-90s. Eleven days later Daniels declared that he wouldn’t run in 2012, citing “the interests and wishes of my family.” A month later, almost to the day, Huntsman jumped in. And now we’re in year five of Hopenchange.

Here’s Abby Huntsman, Jon’s daughter, quite outrageously outraged indeed about “Double Down.”