Newt’s Secret Ally: Jon Huntsman

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Photo: Pool/2011 Getty Images

The Republican nomination may well hinge upon the New Hampshire primary. Gingrich has opened large leads in three of the first four states, and now trails Romney by just nine points in New Hampshire. If Gingrich can win there, he will probably sweep to victory in South Carolina and Florida, opening the contests with four straight wins and building a perception of inevitability that Romney can’t overcome. And there’s one hidden factor that just might help Gingrich win New Hampshire: Jon Huntsman.

Huntsman is putting all his chips in New Hampshire. His PAC, funded by his wealthy father, is pouring money into ads in the state, lifting him up into double digits. He’s also put together the campaign’s most brutal assaults on Romney. Check out this takedown.

Can Huntsman win the state? I highly doubt it. He can hurt Romney, though. As a moderate (and a Mormon) he outflanks Romney on the left, competing for votes among the party’s shrunken centrist wing, and preventing Romney from moving further right to fend off Gingrich. It wouldn’t take much for Huntsman to deliver a death blow to Romney’s campaign in the Granite State.

Is it possible that, if Romney collapses, Huntsman could arise as the moderate-Establishment alternative to Gingrich? Anything is possible, but I doubt it. I don’t even think that’s what Huntsman is trying for. As I’ve written before, I think he’s trying to position himself to win the nomination four years later.

My personal Rosetta Stone for understanding Huntsman is a great profile my former colleague Zvika Krieger wrote in the New Republic in May, 2009. In that piece, Huntsman and many people close to him unloaded on the Republican Party as mindlessly partisan and in hoc to right-wing extremists. Huntsman was perfectly candid not only about his estrangement from the party, but about the impossibility of a moderate like himself winning the nomination. A taste:

During our conversations last month in Utah, Huntsman had already begun to realize that perhaps the Republican Party was not ready for him. "You cannot have a successful party based upon a very narrow band, demographically," he tells me. "You've gotta broaden it to include more young people, more people of color, more people who are urban-dwellers, more who are the intelligentsia in America, many who have jettisoned the party. … And that's ultimately I think how it's going to play out. We're just not there yet." Two years was probably not enough time for the party to change. "He realized he'd just be beating his head against the wall with these guys, which made him open to the phone call [from Obama]," says another source close to Huntsman. "If he thought he had a real chance to be the standard-bearer and savior of the party, obviously he would have said no."

So why, after diagnosing the party as too extreme to nominate him, is Huntsman running anyway? I suspect he’s setting himself up for 2016. If the GOP loses the election, then conceivably the party will come to believe Huntsman’s diagnosis that it’s too extreme and has demographically marginalized itself. If so, Huntsman would be well positioned to lead.

But for that plan to work, a couple of things need to happen. First, Huntsman needs a credible showing this time around. Republicans usually nominate candidates who have run before and built up name-recognition and a core of loyalists.

Second, and even more crucially, Romney must not win the 2012 nomination. For Republicans to conclude that they must move to the center, they have to lose while waging a right-wing campaign. They’ll want to embrace a candidate who could avoid the mistakes of the past. But if Romney is the losing candidate, the party will instead decide that he was too centrist, and the answer is to nominate a true believer. (Their shared Mormonism would make Republicans even less prone to turn 2012 buyers’ remorse into 2016 Huntsmania.)

Again, I have no inside knowledge of Huntsman’s plans. What I’m describing strikes me as the one rational explanation for an otherwise hopeless campaign. It would perfectly explain the focus of his campaign – aiming his guns at Romney and betting it all on the one state where he can do the most damage to him. If Gingrich slips past Romney in New Hampshire, he may have Huntsman to thank. And if President Obama gets to face Gingrich, he may, too.