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Running for Grown-up

Mitt Romey works the same Fourth of July parade.  

In 1999, in the wake of the international bribery scandal that roiled the upcoming 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, the organizing committee began a search for someone to fix the mess. Romney was then running Bain Capital after failing to unseat Ted Kennedy in the 1994 Massachusetts Senate race; Huntsman was vice-chairman of his father’s company after serving as ambassador to Singapore under Bush 41. With both seeing the chance to rescue the Games as a potential political gold mine, intense lobbying campaigns were waged by their allies. Romney prevailed—and the Huntsman family was livid.

In the Salt Lake Tribune, Huntsman Sr. lashed out, slamming Romney as “politically driven” and “very, very slick and fast-talking.” Even today, Huntsman Jr. contends that Romney’s selection was “precooked,” that his own name was only ever thrown into the mix to provide the appearance of a competitive process. “It kind of dawned on me that I was being used,” he tells me.

When the Olympics were over, Romney went home to the Bay State and was elected governor that fall; two years later, the same happened for Huntsman in Utah. Once in office, they were mirror images of each other. “They came to prominence as governors in a way that is interesting because they’ve switched personas,” says BYU political-­science professor Quin Monson. “Huntsman was a very conservative governor and then moderated as he got ready to leave office and was looking toward the national stage. Romney did the exact ­opposite: To shake the mold from Massachusetts, he had to portray himself as more conservative.”

As Romney was preparing for his presidential run in 2008, he started consulting Huntsman Jr. about foreign policy and trade. Huntsman Sr. signed on as a ­finance chair for Romney’s PAC, donating nearly $130,000 to him; the natural ­expectation was that his son would soon endorse Romney. ­Instead, in July 2006, Huntsman announced that he was backing McCain—indeed, becoming one of his national co-chairs.

Now it was Romneyworld’s turn to seethe. According to sources involved in Romney’s 2008 campaign, Huntsman promised Romney that he would endorse him. But Huntsman insists this is false. “We had political conversations, but never a straight-up endorsement,” he tells me. John Weaver, who was working for McCain at the time, seconds that version of events, putting a sarcastic sting in the tail. “At no point did I hear that [Huntsman] was considering supporting Romney—I only hear about it now,” Weaver says. “I guess Governor Romney’s feelings are hurt or something.”

The split between Huntsman Jr. and Huntsman père inspires all manner of theories, each more Machiavellian than the last. But a person who speaks regularly to the father says he came to regret supporting Romney, souring on him over a controversy involving the candidate’s convoluted claims about his “lifelong membership” in the NRA, which, in fact, he’d purchased the previous year. “It made him consider Mitt a liar,” this person says. The generations-long ties between the Huntsman and Romney tribes were informally, but conclusively, severed.

By early 2009, after Huntsman won reelection with 78 percent of the vote, he and Weaver had started talking about a presidential bid in 2012. And even after Obama’s dispatchment of Huntsman to Beijing—a move that then–White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel saw as a trifecta, in which a Mandarin-­speaking (qualified!) Republican (bi-­partisan!) would be sidelined as a reelection rival (convenient!)—the idea of tilting at the White House was never far from Huntsman’s mind, though it was clear that any path to the nomination would involve rolling over Romney. “They’re Cain and Abel,” says a GOP strategist who knows them both. “Two brothers, so similar, but also hugely competitive and willing to do anything to get at each other. And in the end, one of them winds up dead.”

The morning after the Romney-­Huntsman parade-ground tête-à-tête in Amherst, I drive up to Wolfeboro to catch Romney’s act at the Bayside Grill and Tavern. Romney stands in the middle of the restaurant, surrounded by a hundred or so people—his neighbors, actually. (The ­Romney summer home on Lake ­Winnipesaukee is a few minutes away.) In classic New Hampshire town-hall style, the questions come fast and hard and ­smothered in skepticism: on the deficit, immigration, the U.N., immigration again, Iran, health care, organized labor, Libya, education, the economy, and energy.

Romney handles the queries with ease and confidence. In almost every instance, he offers his views, then pivots to a critique of Obama. “As president of the United States, on my first day I will direct the secretary of Health and Human Services to grant a waiver to Obamacare for all 50 states.” (Applause.) “Too often, the president speaks loudly and carries a small stick.” (Applause.) Even when Romney muffs a line, he recovers quickly. “[Obama] entered into a negotiation with Russia early in his first term … his only term!” (Big applause.)

Is Romney a flip-flopper? “Look at the record,” says Huntsman.

After Romney finishes, I run into Stuart Stevens, his chief strategist, in the back of the restaurant. “People say we’re getting ahead of ourselves, that we’re running a general-election campaign before we’ve won the primary,” Stevens remarks. “But it’s not true. It’s just that the same thing that will drive the general is driving the primary, and that’s Obama.”

That Romney has improved markedly as a candidate is a claim often voiced within the political class. But in unscripted situations, especially those involving contact with human beings, Romney remains prone to planting one of his loafers in his piehole (as when, in June, he joked to a group of jobless Floridians that he was “also unemployed”). What’s different this time is the discipline, focus, and strategic clarity that have characterized his bid, of which the sustained indictment of the president is a prime example. “The fact that he’s been engaging Obama elevates him above the field and subliminally shows Republican voters what it’s gonna look like next summer,” says Scott Reed, who managed Bob Dole’s campaign in 1996. “That’s a smart strategy.”

Equally intelligent and effective has been Romney’s unrelenting focus on jobs and the economy—which might sound like an obvious tack but is more difficult to execute with consistency than you might think. “Of all the candidates,” Steve Schmidt observes, “it’s most clear why Mitt Romney is running for president, which is to fix the economy.”

Less tangible but arguably just as significant is Romney’s comfort level. “He has the best and only asset you can’t buy in national politics, and that is experience,” says Reed. “Having gone around the track, he knows what matters and what doesn’t. He’s learned to rise above the daily chatter and not constantly be reacting and twisting into a pretzel like he did four years ago. And it appears that he is in control of his own campaign, which is another big difference.”

Romney’s level of control owes much to his having pared down and weeded out his retinue of advisers, which was sprawling and venomously fractious the last time around. But it’s also a result of the charmed circumstances in which the campaign has operated for much of this year—a period when the media serially fixated on candidates who never got in the race (Haley Barbour, Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels, Donald Trump) and the gaudier ones who did (Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann). This dynamic enabled Romney to lie low, tend to his fund-raising, and achieve one of any front-runner’s paramount objectives: the avoidance of ­verbal seppuku.

But Romney’s cruise-control period is inevitably about to come to a crashing end, as he mounts the debate stage at least six times before the end of the year—and as his rivals begin to pound him ceaselessly on a range of issues, the most obvious being health care. That is: the similarities between Romneycare and Obamacare, and especially the individual mandate.

When Romney is asked about this topic in Wolfeboro, he doesn’t miss a beat. “What we did for Massachusetts was right for Massachusetts,” he replies. “The nice thing about a state solution to a state problem, as opposed to a federal takeover, is that the states, if they don’t like something, can change it … What we did in Massachusetts isn’t perfect. It’s got things in it that I vetoed at the beginning that got put back in by the Legislature. And I’m sure that years in the past, there are things I would’ve done quite differently as well. But … I’m pretty proud of the fact that we took on a tough situation. Ninety-eight percent of the people in my state now are insured. I think that’s a good thing. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I’ll put the health of the people in my state ahead of my political prospects.”

Few political professionals outside Romney’s orbit believe that such answers, finely calibrated and well practiced as they may be, have neutralized his problem. “Given the flip-flopper label, they decided he couldn’t repudiate Romneycare; they said, ‘We can’t flip the quarter one more time,’ ” says a Republican consultant aligned with no presidential campaign. “But his position now is, ‘This thing’s such a great idea that no other state should do it, and my plan is totally different from Obama’s. Obama shot somebody and killed him; I shot somebody and the bullet killed him.’ It’s just nonsensical.”

The broader problem, this consultant points out, is that a critique of Romneycare can be expanded to undermine Romney’s credentials on the economy: “The thing about Obama isn’t just Obama­care—he’s getting between you and your doctor. It’s that he’s expanding government, making it more expensive, making it a bigger part of your life. Obamacare is a symbol, and the same thing is true of Romneycare: It’s incompatible with economic growth; it’s bankrupting his state.”