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What’s Huntsman’s Strategy?

Partly in response to Michael Dougherty’s profile [1], Jim Antle wonders why Jon Huntsman didn’t run to the right [2]. What advantage can there be in a Republican candidate saying, as Huntsman did on Twitter, that he believes in evolution and trusts science on global warming? The nonexistence of man-made “climate change” and rejection of evolution are articles of faith for large blocs of the GOP base, after all, and there don’t seem to be blocs of any size within the party that insist on the contrary view.

Huntsman’s approach looks a little like John McCain’s in 2000. That didn’t win McCain the nomination, but it did win him the New Hampshire primary. The wager the Huntsman people — former McCain adviser John Weaver in particular — may be making is that if their man can take down Romney in the Granite State and Perry or Bachmann wins Iowa, primary voters in places like Florida and perhaps even South Carolina (which has a less consistently right-wing primary base than you’d think; this is the party and the state that gives us Lindsey Graham, after all) will face a choice between a candidate who seems like a strong general-election contender and a candidate who seems like a base-pleasing flop.

Looking at the candidates the GOP has actually nominated over the past 20 years — two Bushes, Dole, and McCain — makes it clear that “moderates” have a way of winning in the end. A second scenario in which Huntsman could pull through would see Bachmann and Perry both surviving Iowa but subsequently draining momentum from one another, much as Romney (then a movement darling, believe it or not) and Huckabee bled one another in the 2008 fight with McCain.

All of this depends on Romney collapsing, and I think that’s unlikely. It also puts a great deal of weight on New Hampshire’s independent tendencies, and that seems like a losing bet as well, quite apart from McCain’s win in 2000. But it’s not clear that a more conventional strategy of running to Romney’s right would do any better: voters who want red meat were never going to take the former Obama ambassador Huntsman over the likes of Perry and Bachmann. On paper, being another candidate on Romney’s right might seem like a stronger, safer position, but there’s a danger of being lost in the herd.

Huntsman is perhaps also taking a cue from Ron Paul. Confronting Giuliani over foreign policy and terrorism should have been electoral suicide by any conventional measure. But it separated Paul from also-rans like Tom Tancredo and Sam Brownback and galvanized a segment of the base that didn’t even exist before that moment. Huntsman is no Paul, but when you’re at 2 percent in the polls, what do you have to lose? There’s no cost, and as Paul demonstrated, there can be unexpected gains. (And in terms of internal campaign dynamics, there’s sometimes a fundraising benefit in playing to the campaign’s base rather than the party’s base.)

Huntsman was a longshot before and he’s a longshot after his “maverick” tweeting — but now he’s a longshot with more attention and a brand distinct from the rest of the field. The latter is more than Pawlenty ever managed, and we saw where campaigning as a conventional conservative took him.

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#1 Comment By Patrick On August 24, 2011 @ 12:47 pm

“Huntsman’s approach looks a little like John McCain’s in 2000.”

Perhaps Huntsman is running for 2016? In other words, setting himself up as “next in line” after Mitt wins the nomination and loses to Barack Obama in the 2012 election.

#2 Pingback By The American Spectator : AmSpecBlog : Red Meat Huntsman On August 24, 2011 @ 2:01 pm

[…] II: Dan McCarthy argues that Huntsman's strategy makes a certain Weaveresque sense. He's certainly right that Huntsman's […]

#3 Comment By Aizen On August 24, 2011 @ 4:37 pm

@Patrick

Are you suggesting Mitt would lose to Obama? I like Mitt but I don’t think he can’t beat Obama. Neither can Bachmann, Cain, Santorum, or Gingrich. Perry might be able to, but do we want another George Bush-like Republican in the White House? Only Huntsman and Ron Paul draw a strong, stark contrast with Obama, and both have strong Conservative records under their belt, both of them piss off the Neocons, and both are appealing to both independents and conservatives.

#4 Comment By Patrick On August 24, 2011 @ 6:04 pm

@ Alzen:

“Are you suggesting Mitt would lose to Obama?”

Absolutely. Romney’s like a Republican version of John Kerry. “I voted for state-run healthcare, before I voted against it”. While Obama is like a Democratic George Bush, “You might not like my health care bill, but you know where I stand – not like this flip-flopper.” Like George Bush, Obama is unpopular…until he’s stacked up against a specific candidate who has no rationale for replacing the incumbent.

That the GOP establishment is *begging* Christie, Palin, Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan, *someone, anyone* to jump into the race; or that Rick Perry can compete, poll-wise, with Romney after being in the race one week speaks to Romney’s weakness. The rank-and-file won’t turn out for him like they did for George Bush in 2004; and if they stay home, Barack Obama will be pressing hard in places like Ohio, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Iowa, New Mexico, nevada, Florida: all places where the GOP needs to compete nationally. Obama will be fighting the whole campaign on GOP turf, due to the party’s lukewarmness.

#5 Pingback By The Huntsman Gambit – NYTimes.com On August 25, 2011 @ 11:44 am

[…] that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere otherwise, this isn’t a crazy strategy. As Dan McCarthy points out, it helped Ron Paul make some noise in 2008:… Confronting Giuliani over foreign policy and […]

#6 Pingback By Eunomia » The Huntsman Strategy On August 25, 2011 @ 2:39 pm

[…] doesn’t see much use in the Huntsman strategy Dan McCarthy discussed yesterday: When Paul feuded with Giuliani over foreign policy four years ago, he was separating […]

#7 Comment By tbraton On August 25, 2011 @ 5:43 pm

” Romney’s like a Republican version of John Kerry. “I voted for state-run healthcare, before I voted against it”. While Obama is like a Democratic George Bush, “You might not like my health care bill, but you know where I stand – not like this flip-flopper.” ”

I beg to differ. You are comparing apples to oranges. Mitt Romney was for Massachusetts’ healthcare plan, but he has always been opposed to Obama’s national healthcare plan. In fact, he has stated that his first act as President would be to grant waivers to all 50 states from Obamacare. Kerry actually voted in favor of the Iraq War before he decided he was against it. The very same war. Although he did have a hard time deciding whether he was for it or against it, even as he decided he was against it. He just couldn’t make up his mind. In light of his open support of Obama’s “war” against Libya, it is obvious that Kerry long ago forgot why he was opposed to the Vietnam War. Romney’s position in favor of federalism is very much like Rick Perry’s original approval of New York State’s adoption of gay marriage: he disapproves of gay marriage but ackowledges the right of New York to approve it. That is my position exacty. Isn’t that what states’ rights is all about?

As far as Obama is concerned, I still remember that he was opposed to the “individual mandate” before he was for it. In fact, that was the principal difference separating his healthcare plan from Hillary Clinton’s during the Democratic nomination fight. Of course, he was also in favor of the War Powers Resolution as a Senator before deciding it didn’t apply to Libya as President. He was also opposed to raising the debt ceiling as Senator, while urging Congress to give him a clean debt raising bill as President. Mr. Genius President will have a lot of tricky issues to defend, not to mention the complete failure of his economic program.

#8 Comment By Patrick On August 27, 2011 @ 10:04 am

@tbraton:

You’re absolutely right about Mitt and “states’ rights”. But I think the rank-and-file are neither going to appreciate it, or be enthusiastic about getting out to vote for a guy who supported state-run health care…in his state. “We want health care federalism” is hardly a great campaign slogan, even though TAC readers like you and I care a great deal about it. I believe Obama will hit Mitt hard with the “I patterned by bill off of yours, Mitt – Romenycare was my guide”, and I think that will really depress Mitt’s support and allow Obama to squeak by him.

In other words: your distinction is correct – but I don’t think it matters, politically.

“Mr. Genius President will have a lot of tricky issues to defend”

Right again; but he only has to defend those issues to a narrow slice of his base. How many Obama voters are going to say, “Obama v. Romney? I’d love to vote for Obama, but he sold me out on the War Powers Act. I’m voting for Nader/staying home.”

There aren’t many of those. How do I know that? Because they fell in line for Kerry even though he wasn’t the far left’s/civil liberties left’s favorite. Obama’s base will fall in line with few defections, while Romney’s will never quite be sold on their candidate and thus won’t turnout for him like they did for George Bush. Obama will always be pressing on GOP turf and have no trouble delivering Democratic states despite his unpopularity, in my opinion.

#9 Comment By Kim Margosein On September 3, 2011 @ 5:45 pm

I dunno. Mitt “corporations are people” Romney is too clever by half. He couldn’t even give a straight answer on creationism/evolution. I agree with Patrick. The GOP will run some loon like Perry, Bachmann, or Palin. Huntsman will be the “I told you so” candidate for 2016.

#10 Comment By William Dalton On September 8, 2011 @ 9:20 pm

Jon Huntsman is wise to claim the “not just another conservative” slot on his party’s Presidential menu, even though he has better credentials than most to be one. Like John McCain in 2000, he knows that no one wins the Republican nomination in his first run for the office (unless, like George W. Bush, you carry your father’s Presidential name). He is setting himself up for the future. More importantly, he is setting himself up to be the Vice Presidential running mate to one of the flurry of “wild eyed radicals” who will win the Presidential nomination. He is the man the Party can turn to balance the ticket for the race in November. One problem – recurring to rule one, only two people presently in the race can be the 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney and Ron Paul. Only they have vetted themselves with Republican primary and caucus voters once before. Huntsman cannot run with Mitt Romney. He doesn’t balance him, he mirrors him. That is why two things mark Huntsman’s candidacy at the moment – Mitt Romney is the only one of his opponents he will point to and criticize personally, and aside from Ron Paul, Huntsman is the only one on the podium who will state explicitly it is time to cut our defense commitments with foreign nations and bring our troops home. That is Huntsman’s strategy – to be lower half of the Paul/Huntsman ticket in 2012 and, win or lose, be the successor to the octogenarian Ron Paul as the Presidential nominee in 2016.