Jon Huntsman Jr. sits on the edge of a couch in his new home in Washington, a four-story redbrick manse north of Dupont Circle that is ambassadorial in every detail. The living room is filled with furniture upholstered in yellow chintz and cretonne; the floor is covered with a well-worn Oriental rug; the walls are adorned with massive oil paintings of Asian street scenes. All of this is fitting, and not simply because Huntsman served until three months ago as the chief U.S. plenipotentiary to China, but because he still acts and speaks less like the presidential candidate he is today than the diplomat he recently was—his tone even, his sentences oblique, his diction narcotized by the passive voice and an acute aversion to the first-person singular. (So relentlessly does Huntsman refer to himself as “we” that a casual listener, as he himself wryly notes, might wonder, “Does this guy have a mouse in his pocket?”) None of which is ideal. But then, if you believe what you read in the political press, an inability to cough up an “I” is the least of the maladies currently afflicting the Huntsman candidacy.
It’s the morning of July 22, and just 24 hours earlier, Huntsman’s campaign manager, Susie Wiles, resigned and was replaced by his sharper-edged communications director, Matt David. The news has the horserace handicappers aflutter, as it apparently confirms the congealing conventional wisdom that the Huntsman bid is in trouble: gaining scant traction with voters (nationally and in the early-primary states, he is polling in the low single digits), lacking any discernible message, certainly stalled, and maybe stillborn à la Fred Thompson in 2008. Politico describes the Wiles departure as “part of a major campaign shake-up.” A strategist for another campaign dubs the episode the “Huntsman meltdown.”
The candidate is having none of it, however. “Totally overblown,” Huntsman tells me. “This is about taking a good organization and making it better. It’s about beginning Phase Two.”
Phase Two will be the topic of a meeting Huntsman will be convening about an hour from now with the phalanx of high-end hired guns who are running his campaign. Led by chief strategist John Weaver, the guru who guided John McCain’s outside-the-box effort in 2000, the operatives have trekked here from all over: Austin, Orlando, Los Angeles. All agree that it’s time to pick up the pace. Time to get more aggressive. Time, as Huntsman’s press secretary is quoted saying this morning in the Times, to do more to “differentiate ourselves from the president and our Republican rivals”—and one rival in particular: Mitt Romney.
Why wait for the meeting? I ask Huntsman. Why not kick off Phase Two right now? Huntsman leans back, cocks a smile, and readily obliges.
“The Republican nominee is going to need a track record that speaks to job creation and economic expansion,” says Huntsman, who before heading to Beijing was the governor of Utah, where he was credited with just such achievements. “Romney, good man that he is, didn’t have that record in Massachusetts.” Is Huntsman among those who consider Romney a phony and a flip-flopper? “Look at the record. You know, you show up once, you’re a liberal; you show up the next time, you’re a conservative; you show up the next time, you’re a moderate. It shows a fair amount of recasting and reinventing at a time when people are looking for authenticity.” And Huntsman is more authentically conservative than Romney? “Right. Worked for Reagan when somebody was criticizing him. Pro-life when somebody wasn’t. Pro–Second Amendment when somebody wasn’t. You can draw your own conclusions.”
Neither Romney nor his aides have yet to utter a harsh word about Huntsman—on the record, that is. But privately, their scorn for him is withering and total. Huntsman’s bid, they say, is a vanity candidacy, with zero logic or rationale behind it. He has no base in the GOP and absolutely no hope of building one; as an Obama appointee seeking to lead a virulently anti-Obama party, he is terminally toxic.
What’s going on here is clear in political terms. As the race for the GOP nomination begins in earnest with the Fox News–Washington Examiner debate on August 11 in Ames, Iowa, and the straw poll two days later, Romney is the undisputed front-runner, but one whose hold on that status is tenuous if not feeble. His lead is soft, his support squishy, his weaknesses glaring. Meanwhile, the potential entry of the hard-right, Evangelical Texas governor Rick Perry threatens to blow the game wide open. One way or the other, says Steve Schmidt, McCain’s chief strategist in 2008, “Romney is gonna be the focus of attacks by everyone in the race, and he’ll certainly be in an ideological debate; and as he gets into that debate, the numbers will start to become dynamic, and there will be an opportunity for Huntsman.”