Running for Grown-up

Photo: Chris Fitzgerald/Candidate Photos/Newscom (Hunstman); Rick Friedman (Romney)

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.”

Jon Hunstman Jr. at a Fourth of July parade in Amherst, New Hampshire.Photo: Jim Cole/AP Photo

It’s conceivable, to be sure, that the tea party and the populist passions it represents, so evident and evidently deleterious in the debate over the federal debt ceiling, will reduce to rubble the candidacies of both Romney and Huntsman. But history tells us not to bet on it. Despite the sway of various grassroots conservative movements, the GOP has reliably chosen its nominees from its Establishment wing, valuing electability over doctrinal purity. For Romney and Huntsman, this time-tested tendency should be a cause for comfort and for hope, respectively. The two men are, after all, the most Establishmentarian candidates in the field, and also the most likely to forge candidacies capable of winning in a general election. And though Huntsman is now routinely written off as a cipher, let’s not forget the last unconventional, slow-starting, non-table-pounding candidate of whom something similar was said: Barack Obama.

Huntsman and Romney may have another reason for optimism, too—though the idea may strike you, dear reader, as fanciful, delusional, or the product of a head full of psilocybin. Maybe after the abject and dangerous dysfunctionalism on display in Washington this summer, Republican voters will conclude that the moment has arrived to put away childish (and lunatic) things. That, hey, ya know, with Congress now a nuthouse, having a nominee in full possession of his faculties—an actual, sane adult—might not be the worst idea.

The clowns in orange wigs, the guy in the gopher costume, and the dude on stilts dressed as Uncle Sam have already ambled down Boston Post Road when the main sideshow at the Amherst, New Hampshire, Fourth of July parade takes place: Romney and Huntsman meeting face-to-face for the first time since the latter entered the presidential race. The candidates are here because they know that, for them, New Hampshire is the whole ball of wax. If Romney—who, as a part-time resident of the state and former governor of the state next door, is a quasi-favorite son—fails to win the primary, his candidacy is likely over. And if Huntsman is the one who knocks him off, he instantly becomes the party’s likely nominee.

As they prepare to start marching, Romney, 64, spies Hunstman, jogs over, clasps his hand, pats his shoulder—and then sticks in the shiv. “Welcome to New Hampshire!” he chirps, as if greeting a foreign tourist. “It’s not Beijing, but it’s lovely!” Huntsman, 51, mutters in reply, “The air is breathable.” Afterward, a reporter asks him about the colloquy. “It was a nice exchange,” Huntsman says. “A nice greeting, wishing each other luck, and being friends.”

The definition of friendship in politics is famously elastic, but it would take a heroic amount of stretching for the concept to encompass the Romney-Huntsman relationship, which is far more complex and combustible than being pals. Both former governors, both multimillionaires, both Mormons who served the church as missionaries, Romney and Huntsman have much in common. With their lean frames, chiseled features, ramrod postures, and salon-model hair, they look so much alike that you might think they were related, and you would be right. (They are distant cousins.) They are scions of what Richard Ostling, a co-author of Mormon America: The Power and the Promise, calls “two royal families in Mormonism”—two clans entwined for generations, once warmly but no longer.

The bonds stretch back to the founding of the church and the settling of the Salt Lake Valley. As the Washington Post recently reported, Parley Pratt, a contemporary of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith and a pioneer of the valley, was Huntsman’s great-great-great-­grandfather and Romney’s great-great-grandfather. Romney’s father, George, was a childhood friend of Huntsman’s maternal grandfather, David Haight, who later went on to be the mayor of Palo Alto and a high church official, and an adult friend of Jon Huntsman Sr. when both served in the Nixon administration.

The fathers were nearly as similar as the sons: both wealthy industrialists, devout servants of the church, and avatars of the frontier patrician style. George Romney was the more famous as the head of American Motors who became governor of Michigan. Huntsman Sr. kept a lower public profile but amassed a greater fortune, starting a packaging company that invented the clamshell container for the Big Mac and then building a chemical conglomerate; his expansive philanthropic efforts have made him one of the most influential figures in Utah. A near billionaire and bone-deep conservative, his pals include Dick Cheney and Glenn Beck, who calls Huntsman Sr. “the only man I have ever met that I believe has the character of George Washington.”

For all this shared history, however, Mitt and Jon Jr.—a generation apart, reared in different states—never even met until 2005. But that doesn’t mean their paths hadn’t crossed; quite the contrary.

Mitt Romey works the same Fourth of July parade.Photo: Jim Cole/AP Photo

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.”

McDonald's clamshell-box inventor Jon Hunstman Sr. and family circa 1969.Photo: Courtesy of Jon Huntsman

But Romney’s real challenge may be deeper than his stance on any issue. “He’s going to be tested not just on health care and on the economy but on character—he’s going to be tested as Mitt Romney,” says GOP strategist Alex Castellanos, who advised Romney in 2008. “Has he matured? Has he grown? Where does he draw the line in the sand that for this we will now stand?”

However Romney eventually answers those questions, Castellanos still sees an opening for a viable alternative. “The ­Republican who beats Obama is the unobjectionable Republican, the Republican who lets the spotlight drift back to Obama, and who is an authentic grown-up,” he says. “Is that Huntsman? I wonder what’s their strategy. And I don’t have a clue.”

The bafflement over Huntsman’s approach so far is nearly universal. By the time he and his family arrived back in Washington from Beijing at the end of April, the buzz around his hypothetical candidacy was already thrumming. At a moment of fathomless discontent with the extant Republican field—a group consisting, Romney aside, of the hopeless, the witless, the clueless, and the unhinged—Huntsman had the look of a potential savior: a handsome, Harley-riding, tax-cutting western governor with foreign-policy expertise out the wazoo, a family out of a J.Crew catalogue, and a personal net worth starting eight places to the left of the decimal point. Piloted by Weaver, who had assembled a campaign-in-waiting over the previous few months while Huntsman finished out his duty in China, the bid would be keenly nondoctrinaire: a fiscally hawkish, socially tolerant, internationalist, next-generation affair.

Then came the formal announcement of Huntsman’s candidacy on June 21. Two words: major buzzkill. Staged in Liberty State Park in New Jersey—the same venue from which Ronald Reagan launched his general-election campaign in 1980—with the big copper lady as a backdrop, the event featured few ­supporters, just a few bused-in college kids easily outnumbered by members of the press, and the speech Huntsman delivered was long on ambient thematics but short on any argument about where he proposed to lead the nation. For an address meant to evoke Reagan, the most shocking thing was this: Of its 1,471 words, not one was “conservative.” And, just as troubling to many on the right, it failed to take a single shot at Obama.

“The way you judge an announcement is your message to the conservatives in the party, because conservatives are the driving force in the ­nomination process,” says Reed, who once ­advised the Huntsman ­Corporation and describes himself as a fan of Jon Jr. “Poor Huntsman had no third-party validation by anyone in his party right of center, had a very mixed message, and by the end of the week it was like a Chinese lunch, where you felt like there was nothing in your stomach.”

Huntsman’s uneasiness with affixing a conservative label to himself has been evident from the start. On his first trip to New Hampshire, in late May, he insisted instead on the achingly anodyne “pragmatic ­problem-solver.” A month later, when he visited New York on a fund-raising swing, I asked who his political heroes were. ­“Reagan was certainly part of that,” Huntsman said, though he paraphrased Dutch’s ringing anti-statism as a commitment to “making sure government never exceeds boundaries and never gets out of control from a cost standpoint.” He also mentioned Nixon: “I mean, here’s a guy who created the EPA.”

One possible explanation for Huntsman’s less than lusty embrace of conservatism is that, in truth, he isn’t much of conservative. To some, his admiration for the right’s most-abhorred federal agency—along with his past support, now renounced, for cap and trade—is all the proof required. Add to that his support for gay civil unions and, voilà, what we have here is Nelson Rockefeller II.

But the bulk of Huntsman’s record in Utah is conservative to the core. He cut the state’s income tax and effectively eliminated its sales tax on food. He signed a series of bills that severely curtailed reproductive rights—banning outright second-trimester abortions and making late-term ones a ­second-degree felony. He supported and signed legislation to expand gun rights, including a law that allows drivers to carry loaded ­firearms in their cars without a ­concealed-weapons permit.

Another possibility is that, in trying to walk a thin line between conservatism and moderation, Huntsman finds himself tangled up in his shoelaces. In our meeting at his house, I asked about a comment he’d made in 2008 warning the GOP about being perceived as “anti-science” regarding climate change. “All I’m saying is, we ought to show a little respect for science generally,” he answered. So you believe the planet is getting hotter? “I didn’t say that.” I’m asking you. “It’s not what I believe. I read science. Established bodies of scientists have spoken out … and I respect what [they] have to say.” You respect it, or you accept it? “I’m not here to talk about that,” he said, sounding slightly flustered, but then found his footing. “I respect it, and I happen to believe what they’ve concluded.” Phew.

American Motors president and future Michigan governor George Romney and family, circa 1960.Photo: Francis Miller/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

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.”

Photo: Illustration by Darrow; Darren McCollester/Getty Images (Romney Head)

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; 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 state’s 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.”

Photo: Illustration by Darrow; Chris Fitzgerald/Candidate Photos/Newscom (Huntsman Head)

But among savvy GOP strategists, Castellanos is in the distinct minority. “He’s a ferocious campaigner,” McKinnon says, “who’s had some very tough races, and he’ll throw a roundhouse without blinking.” Schmidt agrees: “He’s a southern Evangelical in a party filled with southern Evangelicals, so he starts out with a strong base culturally in the party. He’s a bona fide social conservative who has economic governing credibility. And he’s a brilliant politician.”

Perry, in other words, could be a bracket buster—a fusion candidate who can unite his party’s Establishment and populist factions, much as Reagan did in 1980. With his roots in the oil-rich Lone Star State, he can tap a deep financial well that would let him compete from a standing start in Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida, all of which feature electorates amenable to his appeal. Even as a not-yet-candidate, national polls put him a strong second to Romney. As for his intellectual heft, one Republican strategist remarks, “If you think of Reagan and W., being called too dumb to be president by folks in New York and California is one of the best early indicators that you might actually wind up being president.”

To take up residence in the Oval Office, of course, will require getting past Obama first. And make no mistake, the White House would prefer to face Perry—with his Bush-on-steroids affect, his talk of Texas seceding from the Union, and his capacity to scare off suburban swing-state voters and drive Democratic turnout through the roof—than either Romney or Huntsman; and in concert with its own super-PAC allies will do everything in its power to nudge the Republican-nomination contest toward that outcome. (Please note that the first TV spot run by a pro-Obama group was an anti-Romney attack ad.)

For Romney and Huntsman, Perry would present the same challenge: a rival who taps into the party’s visceral desire for a nominee able to both beat and beat up on Obama. Thus will Cain and Abel need to raise their games, put up their dukes, and not only make an argument about why Perry is unsuited to lead the GOP but also lay out a compelling positive alternative as to where and how they would shepherd the country—something neither has come within a country mile of doing so far. “The only way to defeat Obama is by being bigger than him, and this is gonna be a fight about who meets that test,” says Weaver. “It’s also gonna be a fight for the soul of our party and at least the short-term future of the country—and those are not small stakes.”

No, they’re not. For the past two-and-a-half years, the debate over that future has been gravely diminished by the petulance, nihilism, and vacuum of leadership on one side of the partisan aisle—set against which Obama’s very real flaws are trivial by comparison. At a time when America faces huge and fateful choices, little would serve the nation better than an election about them between two grown-ups. Do Huntsman or Romney qualify? Does Perry? We shall see. “In a perverse way, there’s not a truer moment in American politics than a tough campaign,” says Weaver. “It brings out the characters of these people, tells us who they really are—so I say, let it rip.”

Additional reporting by Steven Yaccino.

Running for Grown-up