More important, from Weaver’s perspective, is that whatever flaws Huntsman may be hampered by, they pale beside Romney’s. “Can he relate to the average person? No,” says Weaver. “Is it clear that he has any core? It’s not clear to me, personally. They are now on Mitt 5.0, 6.0, 10.0, whatever. They test whether he should be wearing skinny jeans, Gap jeans, ties, no ties, whether he should be for this position or that position. It makes my head spin. His biggest weakness is the fact that he is at heart a marketer, and the last thing the American people need after Barack Obama is a marketer president.”
Thus a preview of the onslaught soon coming Romney’s way via Team Huntsman. Expect the campaign to take to the airwaves sooner rather than later, with a slew of comparative ads aimed at the softest targets: on Romney’s record on job creation as governor (Massachusetts ranked 47th in the nation, according to MarketWatch.com; Utah under Huntsman was No. 1, according to National Review); on Romneycare versus Huntsman’s mandate-free state-health-care-reform law; on Romney’s lack of constancy on issues such as abortion where Huntsman has been solid.
At the first sign of movement of Huntsman’s numbers, Romneyworld will no doubt respond in kind. When it comes to waging the air wars, Romney, who raised $18 million in the second quarter of this year to Huntsman’s $4 million, will have a major financial advantage. (Unless, of course, Huntsman Jr. pumps a pile of his own dough into his campaign, or Huntsman Sr. and his son’s rich allies form a “super PAC” to bankroll a blitz of anti-Romney advertising, both of which are more likely than not.) Not crediting Ayres’s polling for a moment—and noting gleefully a piece of Huntsman’s New Hampshire campaign material, which lists Reagan and both Bushes as among his former bosses but conspicuously omits Obama’s name—Romney’s people will hammer him for having been 44’s front man in China. Also, relatedly, for being implicated in the administration’s trade policy toward Beijing, which they regard as radioactive.
For a politician, Huntsman has a very hard time saying the word “I.”
How will Huntsman handle being the target of attacks? “No one ever has a thick enough skin for this,” he tells me. “You put on a bulletproof vest and say, ‘We’re willing to take whatever is dished out because the cause is such a great one.’ ”
But Huntsman will need to do more than take it. Assuming he wants to win, he’ll need to dish it out, too. In his announcement speech, Huntsman promised to run a campaign on the “high road,” in which “civility” would be a cardinal principle, a pledge that struck many political pros as naïve or weak or bogus, but that the Huntsman crowd maintains was none of the above. The open question, however, is whether Huntsman, once the shooting starts, will duck and cover or be made of sterner stuff—inclined and able to rip Romney a new one.
Even Weaver may not know the answer, but you can safely bet the mortgage money on which he is praying for. Like many analysts, Weaver sees the nomination contest as a tournament with two brackets—the Establishment bracket and the populist, tea-party bracket—in which the winners of each will ultimately face off in the final round. In the Establishment bracket, Weaver places only Huntsman and Romney, “and if we win our bracket, we win the nomination,” he declares. “Because in our party, the winner of that bracket always wins [the big prize]. Always.”
But maybe not this time. To a degree that’s become entirely apparent only in the past month, as the full faith and credit of the United States has been placed in jeopardy for the first time in history by a cadre of intransigent, borderline batshit, tea-party-backed House freshmen, the GOP heading into 2012 is not your father’s Republican Party—or, perhaps, Willard Mitt Romney’s or Jon Meade Huntsman Jr.’s. Instead, as David Brooks has written, it is behaving more like a protest movement than a governing apparatus—a transformation suggesting that the old rules of its nominating process may prove inoperative.
Until recently, the most obvious beneficiary of such a development would have been Bachmann. But even before her recent troubles with migraines and missed congressional votes, she was always a candidate unlikely to draw sufficient mainstream Republican support to go the distance, more an object of media fascination than a plausible nominee. As Huntsman puts it, somewhat indelicately, “She makes for good copy—and good photography.”
Rick Perry is a different story. Though he has yet to declare his intent, the likelihood of his leaping in seems to rise with each passing hour, as Perry and his lieutenants scramble to lay the foundations for a run. Despite his credentials as the longest-serving governor in the nation and a record of job creation in Texas that surpasses any other states during the recession and recovery, not everyone takes the pistol-packing, perpetually cowboy-booted Perry seriously. “He’s George W. Bush without the brains,” says Castellanos. “He’s like a Roman candle that will go up fast and then fall quickly to Earth.”