Huntsman is expected to make his perceived electability a centerpiece of his platform.
The Huntsman campaign-in-waiting is already at work making this case, seizing on the White House’s apparent concern with the charismatic former governor whom they may have incorrectly assumed to have successfully exiled to the other side of the world when President Obama appointed him ambassador to China in 2009.
On Wednesday, Obama seemed particularly intent on drowning Huntsman with praise, calling him “an outstanding advocate for this administration” as the ambassador prepares to head home next month to mull a political future that could set him against his current boss.
“Despite the fact that Huntsman’s still virtually unknown, the president and his advisors have enough political sense to recognize that he would be the most formidable opponent in the general election,” said a strategist likely to be involved in a Huntsman campaign. “The only reason they are meddling in the GOP primary at this early stage is because they know Huntsman can win.” ~Scott Conroy
Huntsman supporters are very entertaining, and I’m looking forward to several more months of this sort of comedy. They understand that Huntsman is pretty much doomed in the primaries by his association with Obama, but for whatever reason they want to repeat as often as possible Obama‘s assessments of Huntsman’s electability, Obama‘s decision to appoint him as ambassador, and Obama‘s supposed fear of a Huntsman nomination. This is rather odd reverse psychology. It’s as if they’re saying, “The only way to beat Obama is to take Obama’s advice on choosing the candidate he thinks would be most effective against him, so trust Obama when he says that Huntsman is electable! Obama wouldn’t lie about a thing like that!” I submit that this is a losing message.
Republican voters don’t trust Obama. Even if they were inclined to believe Huntsman’s electability, Obama’s supposed roundabout endorsement of Huntsman’s electability (by praising him effusively) gives them reason not to believe it. If Obama were right and Huntsman is the most electable Republican in the 2012 field, Republican voters wouldn’t care because they would conclude that serving as ambassador under Obama makes him unacceptable no matter how electable he is. The rallying cry against Huntsman will be, “We want an echo, not a copy!” This will be unfair and inaccurate as far as most of Huntsman’s record is concerned, but that is what comes from putting such a high premium on political team loyalty.
There’s something else genuinely odd about what Huntsman supporters are saying. Electability is going to be the centerpiece of Huntsman’s campaign, and one of the reasons his supporters believe he is electable is that he has foreign policy credentials, which he has been building during his time in Beijing. At the same time, they want to suggest that Obama has been speaking out so enthusiastically about Huntsman’s service in order to cripple him politically. That implies that Obama is deliberately exaggerating the quality of Huntsman’s work to make it seem as if he is closely aligned with Obama and therefore less viable in a Republican primary. It seems to me that this is a serious disservice to Huntsman, as Huntsman has been widely praised for actually being a very competent and effective ambassador who deserves praise for his work. In other words, whenever Obama credits Huntsman for doing a good job, he is supposedly “meddling” in the Republican primary rather than commenting on Huntsman’s work, which will lead Republican voters to question his foreign policy credentials as well. This is what Huntsman’s supporters are saying. Just imagine what his enemies will do.
When I saw the article outlining that Huntsman’s would-be campaign was going to focus heavily on New Hamsphire, I was thinking that it could create an annoyance for Romney, since Romney needs to dominate in New Hampshire and Huntsman could peel off some moderate and independent votes that Romney might otherwise win. On second thought, Romney doesn’t need to worry. Once Huntsman goes “all-in” in New Hampshire and fails, Romney won’t have to fight with him over moderate Republican voters.
P.S. As this New Hampshire Journal story reports, Huntsman’s growing campaign organization leans heavily on McCain 2000 staffers, and the strategy seems to be a warmed-over version of McCain’s 2000 pursuit of undeclared voters. Leaving aside Romney’s presence in the race, it wouldn’t be enough anyway:
Reports have been surfacing about an early May Huntsman visit to Wayne Jennings’ group, the New Hampshire Cultural Awareness Diversity Council. Given Jennings’ remarks in Real Clear Politics earlier this week, the strategy for a Huntsman candidacy thus far seems clear: focus on undeclared voters. While on the surface some may think this is a winning strategy, even John McCain tied George W. Bush among Republicans in his stunning 2000 primary upset. Statistics show that only between 25 and 30 percent of undeclared voters will make up the total 2012 Republican primary electorate, and it is highly unlikely that Huntsman can win more than 50 percent of those voters in a crowded Republican field. Huntsman will need a big chunk of Republicans to have a shot of pulling off a McCain 2000-type victory in hopes of throwing the nomination fight on its head as the calendar turns to the more conservative South Carolina.