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Running for Grown-up

American Motors president and future Michigan governor George Romney and family, circa 1960.  

Still another possibility is that Huntsman simply finds it hard to talk about himself in the way that’s second nature for most national politicians. That weird verbal tic—all the we-we-we instead of me-me-me—suggests this might be so. “I’m from the George Bush Sr. school,” he says. “It’s just part of the way you’re raised and the culture that you come up in.” (There he goes again.) Huntsman’s advisers, most of whom first met the man just three months ago, can’t get over their candidate’s degree of self-­effacement. “He has no ego, which is bizarre,” says his adman Fred Davis. “It’s an incredible trait and very befitting a president. But it makes it a little hard for him to be a candidate.”

Whatever the explanation, Huntsman’s inability to define himself has been a real liability thus far. And it’s no small part of the reason that Romney’s team is so dismissive of him. But not everyone in the political-­industrial complex has written off the Huntsman campaign just yet. “Weaver has a very good sense of the physics of these campaigns, and he doesn’t overreact,” says Mark McKinnon, McCain’s media savant in 2008. “He understands the endgame: All they gotta do, like McCain did, is just survive and make it to New Hampshire.”

That Weaver comprehends both endgames and New Hampshire as well as any political professional alive is taken as a truism by his friends and enemies alike—and heaven knows he has his fair share of each. A 51-year-old Texan, Weaver is a walking, talking collection of internal contradictions: lanky and slouchy, hard-boiled and soft-voiced, glibly cynical and earnestly romantic about his craft all at once. The transformation of his most famous client from the John McCain of 2000 to the McCain of 2008 nearly broke his heart; leukemia nearly killed him. When a candidate captures his fancy, as McCain once did and Huntsman has now, he can act like a mooning schoolboy. And when someone earns his enmity—such as Karl Rove, who was once his bête noire—he can behave like a guided missile.

On the night before the Phase Two meeting, Weaver and I grab a drink at the Mayflower Hotel. A few minutes earlier, on the phone, a rival consultant compared the Huntsman campaign to a soufflé that collapses after being removed from the oven. “This time eleven years ago, George Bush was 63 points ahead of John McCain, okay?” Weaver retorts. “We beat him by twenty points, almost. There’s a narrative to these races. You cannot get ahead of yourself. Our goal here is to win the nomination, not to win the chattering-class soufflé-of-the-month award.”

Weaver’s theory about how Huntsman will triumph is simple: zotz Romney in New Hampshire, then move on to South Carolina and Florida, where the campaign is based (Huntsman’s wife hails from there), and put the thing away. And why is New Hampshire such a ripe opportunity for Huntsman? Weaver answers, “Well, first, they know Mitt Romney—how’s that?

“Secondly, Jon Huntsman’s positioning on the issues that they care about up there—which is debt, deficit, taxes, freedom, disentangling from foreign engagements while still having a real foreign policy—resonates really well,” he goes on. “He has the best retail skills of any candidate I’ve worked with. He is comfortable in his skin, and I think that’s the most valuable asset a politician can have … And the team that is working with him”—­almost all of whom labored on behalf of McCain in his Granite State primary runs—“has won the state twice in contested Republican primaries. When is the last time that’s happened? Never.”

Weaver is not alone in seeing New Hampshire as fertile soil for Huntsman. “Because of the dynamics this time—44 percent of their electorate are independent voters, and they’re going to have no Democratic primary to vote in—Huntsman’s going to be very attractive,” McKinnon says. “If you have Huntsman on the left and a Perry or a Bachmann on the right, Romney’s going to be in a very tough squeeze.”

There are informed dissenters to this assessment, however. “First of all, I don’t believe that a moderate Republican can win the New Hampshire primary,” says Mike Dennehy, ­McCain’s top local strategist in 2008. ­“McCain, in my view, was not a moderate Republican; he had a very ­conservative voting record on social and fiscal issues ... [And] Republicans despise Obama more than they despised Bill Clinton, so any association with Obama is a killer.”

Weaver is well aware that the campaign needs to do more to highlight Huntsman’s conservative vitae; that will be a major part of what Phase Two is about. As for Huntsman’s spell in the Obama administration, the campaign has polled extensively on the matter and determined that when the issue is persuasively framed—as an act of patriotism, of serving one’s country when called upon to do so—it is reduced to irrelevance. “If David Petraeus ran for president in 2012, do you think a lot of Republican voters would say, ‘I’ll never vote for him because he worked for Obama?’ ” asks Whit Ayres, Huntsman’s pollster. “I don’t think so.”