Huntsman's desperate bid for relevancy

Perhaps no other oxymoron got more use in my time in New Hampshire than this: “the Jon Huntsman surge.”  Huntsman bet everything on the Granite State and came up a distant third, despite having plenty of funding, covering the state in 175 appearances in six months, and rather notoriously insulting Iowans by claiming that they “pick corn” while New Hampshire “picks presidents.”  Not only did Huntsman lose to Mitt Romney and Ron Paul by a wide margin in New Hampshire, he also came in third among the independents that were supposed to be his base — the very reason he eschewed Iowa in the first place.


Where does Huntsman go from here?  James Hohmann writes at Politico that Huntsman will travel through more conservative South Carolina looking for bare relevance to the election debate:

Jon Huntsman said Wednesday that expectations for his performance in the Jan. 21 primary here are “very low.” And he tried to keep them that way.

Introduced by former South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMaster as “red hot” at one of two town hall meetings as he looked to capitalize on his better-than-expected finish in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, Huntsman stopped short of that rhetoric himself.

“Better than expected”?  Perhaps, but only if expectations got scaled sharply down in November and December.  Huntsman needed much better than a distant third coming out of New Hampshire in order to be relevant in South Carolina and Florida, where he’s not even sure he’ll bother to compete:

Huntsman wouldn’t say whether he would stay in through Florida even if he bombed in South Carolina. He joked that expectations for him in the Sunshine State will be higher because his wife is from there.

“Well, one state at a time,” he said. “One state at a time.”

In my column for The Fiscal Times, I remind people that Huntsman should have taken that approach from the beginning — and perhaps tried to campaign for the votes of conservatives, rather than imply that they had lost their minds:

If Tea Party conservatives didn’t warm to Huntsman, the feeling was undeniably mutual.  Earlier this week, Huntsman told Politico  that he hoped that the cycles of political thought “ultimately takes us to a sane Republican Party based on real ideas,” after supposedly “losing its equilibrium” in the Obama era.  Two weeks earlier, while the rest of the field competed in the Iowa caucuses – a battleground state that will be important to Republican hopes in the fall – Huntsman sneered, “They pick corn in Iowa, and pick presidents here in New Hampshire.”  This did not come from a momentary frustration with his low position in national polls, but a months-long effort to paint himself as a reasoned moderate in a field full of ideologues, even though his record as governor of Utah included the establishment of a flat tax, banning second-trimester abortions, and making late-term abortions a felony.

Furthermore, Huntsman turned out to be rather poor at hiding this disdain in the most closely watched events of the campaigns – the televised debates.  The former diplomat displayed clumsiness in presenting himself that tended to make Mitt Romney look suave and relaxed by comparison.  Huntsman insisted on delivering smug one-liners that invariably fell flat, leaving the uncomfortable impression that Huntsman had convinced himself against all evidence that he was funny, as well as the smartest guy in the room.  In the final debate, Huntsman scolded Romney’s criticism of his time in the Obama administration by offering the novel argument that agreeing to take an ambassadorship was equivalent to his sons’ military service, not once but twice – and then campaigned on the idea in the last couple of days.


Speaking of relevance, just how did Huntsman get to third place in New Hampshire, anyway?

Huntsman gambled that he could attract New Hampshire moderates and independents with his campaign style and convince conservatives on his record, and ride that coalition to a victory in New Hampshire, even though Mitt Romney had campaigned heavily in the Granite State and lived in the state part time.  He lost that gamble, and didn’t come close, finishing a distant third to Romney and Ron Paul.  According to exit polls, Huntsman only won a handful of demographics in New Hampshire: Democrats, those who oppose the Tea Party, and voters who are generally satisfied with the Obama administration.

How relevant will those groups be in South Carolina?  How about in Florida, which has a closed primary?  I’m guessing … not so much, and certainly not as relevant as they were in New Hampshire.  If Huntsman wants to represent a coalition of Democratic opponents to the Tea Party that likes Barack Obama, he doesn’t have an argument at all for beating Barack Obama anyway, let alone representing the Republican Party.

If Huntsman has failed to articulate a reason why he alone presents the best chance for victory in November, we at least have a reason why he’s still in the race.  Politico presents the three billionaires who want to keep the primary in play, and guess who one of them is?

Meet the three billionaires who could drag out the GOP presidential primary, bloody up front-runner Mitt Romney and weaken the odds of defeating President Barack Obama: Sheldon Adelson, Foster Friess and Jon Huntsman, Sr.

The three men are contributing millions of dollars to a trio of outside groups flooding the airwaves in early voting states with brutal ads attacking Romney and ads backing the candidates they would prefer to win the Republican nomination. …

Huntsman, Sr., who made his fortune at the helm of an eponymous chemical and manufacturing company, reportedly has invested millions in a super PAC supporting the presidential bid of his son, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr.


I don’t begrudge Huntsman’s father his support for his son; it’s rather touching.  But perhaps his son might spare his father a few million dollars and face the reality that there was no path to the nomination for Huntsman without an upset win in New Hampshire.  Huntsman’s money couldn’t pull that off on Tuesday, or even come close.

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