On the day before a New Hampshire primary in which the identity of the ultimate victor is universally believed to be a foregone conclusion — Mitt Romney by double digits — the only real story going is the race for second place. And hovering over that story is a single-word headline with an emphatic piece of punctuation: Huntsmentum!
I am only being slightly sarcastic here, because momentum is exactly what the members of Team Huntsman will tell you their guy now has behind him — and there is some evidence to back that claim up. According to the stats geeks at Public Policy Polling, who have a new survey that came out last night, the former Utah governor has moved up four points since PPP's last Granite State poll in December (from 12 to 16 percent) into a statistical tie with a falling Ron Paul (from 21 to 18 percent) for the number-two slot. And that result jibes with what I've been told by two other campaigns about what they are seeing in their internal tracking polls.
It was with this in mind — along with Huntsman's terrific moment in the NBC/Facebook debate on Sunday morning, in which he twice upbraided Mitt Romney for criticizing his service as President Obama's ambassador to China — that I rode out last night to Keene, an hour west of Manchester, to check out his final town hall meeting of the New Hampshire campaign. I say "rode" instead of "drove" because, unusually, I found myself riding shotgun rather than piloting my own vehicle, with the great Mike Barnicle serving as my geriatric, grouchy, and thoroughly sugar-addled chauffeur. (On the way home, Barnicle — high on a packet of Skittles eaten far too quickly, yammering like Neal Cassidy out of his mind on speed while driving Ken Kesey's bus, and pushing his Beemer over 100 mph on Route 101 — managed to get us pulled over and nearly pistol-whipped by an agitated New Hampshire policewoman. But that's a story for another day.)
As it happens, I spent a fair amount of time with Huntsman here in New Hampshire last summer, when I was reporting on a cover story about him and Romney for the magazine. Huntsman was then a potentially attractive candidate, smart and sane, who was struggling mightily to make the transition from ambassador to presidential candidate. His one-on-one retail skills were fine, but in front of a crowd, he was a snooze — "his sentences oblique, his diction narcotized by the passive voice and an acute aversion to the first-person singular," I wrote then. But I was willing to cut the guy some slack, given that he'd only returned from Beijing a few weeks earlier; he's bound to get better, I thought.
Six months later? Not so much. Though Huntsman was evidently energized by his debate turn and rise in the polls, his performance in front of a respectable but hardly overwhelming audience of 300 or so was, if not boring enough to drop a charging elephant in its tracks, then at least sufficiently soporific to cause Barnicle to demand that we leave the event before Huntsman began taking questions. ("Ya think he's still talking?" Mike said an hour after we bailed and right before the cop car's gumball lights started flashing in our rearview mirror.) At one point, Huntsman began singing the praises of the Beltway Establishment's favorite deficit-reduction plan. "I talked to Alan Simpson the other night of Simpson-Bowles; I love that guy!" he enthused — a rousing rallying cry only if you happen to be Pete Peterson. And more than once, Huntsman promised to bring his opening remarks to a close, landed on what should have been a concluding applause line, and then ... just kept going. The contrast with his lovely wife, Mary Kaye, who turned in a crisp and charming seven-minute paean to her husband, could not have been more stark.
But Huntsman is not picking up steam because of his skills on the stump. He is picking up steam for the same reasons that I thought he was attractive all those months ago: his smarts and his sanity, both of which have come into sharper relief as his loopier and more right-wing rivals have swaddled themselves in C-4 and pushed the detonator. The question now, though, is what will happen if Huntsman does finish second. And to my mind, the answer depends on one thing, or more accurately, person — Jon Huntsman, Sr.
From the moment the Huntsman campaign took shape in early 2011, the hard guys running his campaign assumed that Huntsman pere, a billionaire industrialist, would pony up many millions of dollars to fund the super-PAC, known as Our Destiny, working in support of his son. That has not happened, but it still might — if Huntsman Sr. wakes up on Wednesday morning, believes that Jon Jr. is suddenly a viable force in the race, takes out his pen, and writes a big check to Our Destiny. An investment of, say, $10 million — a rounding error on the Huntsman Sr. balance sheet — would allow the super-PAC to blanket the airwaves in South Carolina and Florida with ads, many of them (no doubt) attacking Romney. And while that might still not be enough to put Huntsman Jr. in serious contention to be the Republican standardbearer, it could inflict a serious toll on the front-runner and create a wider opening for hard-core conservatives such as Santorum and Gingrich who are better-positioned in the contests that lie ahead to halt Romney's march to the GOP nomination.
On Tuesday night, in other words, the New Hampshire primary will have an audience of millions, all trying to discern (with the media's help) the meaning and implications of the outcome. And no doubt Jon Huntsman Jr. is praying that his performance will inspire a good many of them to believe he is viable, and to take a second (or, actually, a first) look at him. But in truth he will have an audience of one, who matters above all. And if that audience is well-pleased, things could get mighty interesting.