Huntsman Isn't the Anti-Romney; He's the More Authentic Romney
By Al Giordano
Every four years as the first-in-the-nation caucuses approach in Iowa, back east the national and New Hampshire (read: Boston, Massachusetts) media recites the old yarn, “Iowa picks corn, New Hampshire picks presidents.” There are, in fact, 47 citations of this quote since December 22 in the major media aggregated by Google News.
It’s a popular little ditty. And it’s been entirely wrong for the last 30 years.
Decades ago, New Hampshire did pick presidents: Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter each forged a non-incumbent path to the White House by winning New Hamsphire’s first-in-the-nation primary. Think you're a smart political junkie? Answer me this: When was the last time a non-incumbent (that is, not a sitting president or vice president) took first place in New Hampshire to go on and win the election?
It was 32 years ago and his name was Ronald Reagan.
That's the last time that New Hampshire "picked" a president.
What happened to the Granite State’s former primacy in the electoral process? The downfall came via what could be called the Massachusetts invasion. People born out of state, many from next-door Massachusetts, but also from New York, New Jersey and other industrial mid-Atlantic states, began to populate the charming little state of New Hampshire. Boston TV channels 4, 5 and 7 displaced Manchester’s WMUR channel 9 as primary news sources, just as the Boston Globe and Herald cut into the market niches of Granite State dailies. White-collar workers commuted from southern NH to the Bay State and listened to Boston talk radio and music stations in the car.
And then, prior to 1988, then-Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis figured out that the state to the north was already a media colony of his own commonwealth, and mounted a NH primary victory to win the Democratic nomination for president.
Four years later, in 1992, Massachusetts then-junior United States senator, Paul Tsongas, won the NH primary. In 2004, his senate successor, John Kerry, did the same. They were “favorite sons” in the state next door. Now, if you are a Massachusetts pol in the New Hampshire primary, victory is expected (so much so that in 2008, when former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney lost the NH primary to John McCain, the wheels quickly came off his campaign bus).
Romney’s defeat four years ago aside, in recent decades, coming in second in the New Hampshire primary has in fact served as a better springboard to the presidency than outright winning the contest has accomplished for anyone. Bill Clinton came in second to Tsongas in 1992 and got nicknamed “the comeback kid.” George W. Bush placed to McCain in 2000 and repeated that luck. And Barack Obama, in 2008, placed to Hillary Clinton in 2008, but turned his “concession speech” into the single-largest night of online fundraising and momentum in US electoral history.
(Walter Mondale, losing to Gary Hart in 1984, and Bob Dole, to Pat Buchanan in 1996, forged second-place NH finishes into national party nominations, but went on to lose the general election against popular incumbents).
This is all to state the obvious: Everybody expects Romney to win in Tuesday’s NH primary – he was at 49 percent in the polls in a crowded field just a week ago! – and so the real attention is on second place, a spot that Texan US Rep. Ron Paul has occupied since the end of last year. Paul’s candidacy, though, is something like previous crusades of Pat Buchanan or Pat Robertson; not even he believes he can become the president! He’s in it for other motives, and for purposes of analysis, we can punt on whether they are ideological or ego-driven. It doesn’t much matter to the narrative of who gets to be the GOP nominee or have a shot at serving as president starting next year.
Behind Romney and Paul is the third tier of candidates trying to break out of the pack and emerge as the Anti-Romney: the Iowa victor and former US senator from Pennsylvania Rick Santorum (it seems he really did win the Iowa caucuses outright, after a typographical error gave Romney 20 votes he never obtained: The Field 1, the pundits and polls, 0), former US House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, and former Utah Governor and recent US Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, Jr., each would love to come in a surprise second – or at least edge out the rest of the tier for third – in Tuesday’s primary to set up a chance to knock Romney down when the contests move to the South later this month.
While Santorum, Gingrich and Texas Governor Rick Perry - bypassing NH for the January 21 South Carolina primary - are jockeying to become the Anti-Romney, the recent boom-let in NH polls by Huntsman is interesting from a different angle: a member of the same Church of Latter Day Saints as Romney (although more secular than Romney, a former Mormon bishop, Huntsman likes to boast that his grandfather, contrary to his Church’s teaching of abstinence, owned a saloon), Huntsman isn’t gambling on becoming the standard bearer of the GOP’s Southern Baptist and Evangelical base. Rather, he wants to be the shadow Romney; the guy who can pick up the pieces when Romney stumbles in the road ahead. Think of Huntsman as the Tim Tebow in the contest, waiting behind Kyle Orton for his shot at starting quarterback.
After 160 campaign stops in New Hampshire (Huntsman skipped the Iowa caucuses altogether), the grassroots organizing is paying off. In the RealClearPolitics aggregate of polls, Huntsman has bounced from the back of the pack to a third-place tie with Santorum, each at 11.2 percent. Last night’s PPP survey even had Huntsman challenging Paul for second place, with these results: Romney 35 percent, Paul 18, Huntsman 16, Gingrich 12, Santorum 11, Perry 1 (and a freak 3 percent status for former Louisiana governor – and former Democrat – Buddy Roemer).
Somewhere in that sweet spot between second place or strong third place there is the possibility that Huntsman emerges as a media narrative coming out of New Hampshire’s vote. What would that suggest? While it would not set Huntsman up for Anti-Romney status in Evangelical-heavy South Carolina on January 21, it might be worse news for Romney in this sense: How could another centrist, corporate CEO (of the chemical company Huntsman Corporation), and Mormon take a significant vote away from Romney’s NH base in just a week’s time? Indeed, if Huntsman takes 15 percent or more, that comes pretty much out of the 15 percent or so that Romney has sunk in the past week’s NH polls (with another part of it coming from moderate NH Republicans who had "settled" for Ron Paul before learning more about his wild patchwork of issue stances).
Romney’s “Huntsman problem” is this: Jon Huntsman is a more authentic version of Mitt Romney! Huntsman’s survival in NH would soon become a constant reminder of the glib flip-floppy phoniness of the commander-in-chief of Hair Force One that is Romney today.
Romney stepped into his “Huntsman Problem,” big time, when he criticized Huntsman for having served as US Ambassador to China in the Obama administration, and Huntsman parried it like a candidate ready for prime time. Scott Conroy of RealClearPolitics reports:
“Let’s just be honest about it: I put my country first. Apparently Mitt Romney doesn’t believe in putting his country first,” Huntsman told RCP, as he was surrounded by a crush of reporters. “He’s got this bumper sticker that says, you know, ‘Proud of America’ or ‘Believe in America.’ How can you believe in America when you’re not willing to serve America? That’s just phony nonsense.”
Given that Huntsman – like Romney, Gingrich, and Santorum – never served in the US military (Paul and Perry are the two Air Force veterans in the litter) – it’s pretty crafty that Huntsman was able to pull a ju-jitsu move and use Romney’s attack on him to remind that Romney is a Chicken Hawk. This, in the week when photos emerged (see above) of a 19-year-old Romney protesting against anti-war-in-Vietnam protesters at Stanford University, only to then accept a “missionary deferment” from actual military service…
“I stepped up when my president asked, and I always will -- it’s part of my philosophy,” Huntsman said in Hampstead. “I know that may be hard for Mitt Romney and some people to take, but most of America is with me because in the end, they want this America to be run together. They want us all to find solutions, but they want us to find solutions as Americans first and foremost, not as divided people.”
Huntsman has also taken to bopping around New Hampshire in an Air Force pilot bomber’s jacket with an American flag patch on the arm (as also seen in the photo montage, above). He’s pulled off the PR miracle of turning an ambassadorship (something that more often than not is gifted as a political plum for past support) into something akin to combat duty. But, again, that speaks as much to Romney’s weaknesses as it does to Huntsman’s strengths.
The sudden rise of Huntsman in New Hampshire primary polling also indicates that Newt Gingrich’s kamikaze negative campaign against Romney (returning the favor from Iowa, where Newt was savaged by Romney’s “SuperPACs” in a TV ad barrage) is working to chip away at the former Massachusetts governor’s support – and at his media-fed luster of “inevitability.”
There are other ways in which Huntsman is a superior, more authentic and able version of what Romney purports to be. Most of them come down to one of the key differences that allowed Obama, in 2008, to outmaneuver the former frontrunner Hillary Clinton. It’s generational. Huntsman, born in 1960, is part of the more agile punk rock generation (as a youth he in fact played keyboards in a band called The Wizards) whereas Romney – who happened to be in Paris as a 21-year-old doing missionary work during the Situationist-inspired General Strike of May 1968 – carries himself much like other members of his generation in politics: there is a sense, watching him, that he knows he’s a fraud but keeps pushing on anyway because he doesn’t know any other way to be.
Huntsman's script, in fact, reads like a Republican version of his fellow punk-rock generation member Obama (see the words, above, about how Americans “want us to find solutions as Americans first and foremost, not as divided people,” which are almost verbatim out of Obama’s 2004 Democratic convention keynote speech).
In fact, if I were a New Hampshire voter unregistered in any party, I’d think in “Operation Chaos” terms and utilize the Independent voter’s right to cast a Republican ballot to go in there and give Huntsman a little extra push. All Huntsman needs to do is come out of New Hampshire with enough credibility to remain on the debate stages for the upcoming primaries and caucuses and serve as that “place-marker candidate” for centrist and business-oriented Republicans that have lined up behind Romney but who are beginning to notice the significant cracks in His Phoniness’ hull.
A third place finish in New Hampshire, or, god forbid, a second place steal from Ron Paul, and Huntsman could emerge as the story out of New Hampshire, following in the footsteps of guys named Clinton, Bush and Obama. It seems almost impossible that Huntsman could rob the GOP nomination from pols with more money and name-recognition, but it likewise seems unlikely that the scent on the Romney rose is going to keep smelling as sweet to Republicans who want a candidate with a shot at defeating Obama.
Many long distance runner champions have shared their strategy of remaining a few steps behind the leader for most of the race only to wait for the frontrunner to stumble or fatigue in the final laps and then sprint ahead. Not only does the current frontrunner have to contend with a pool of rivals elbowing each other to fill the Anti-Romney majority niche in the party, but even if those guys keep dividing that vote, the Mittster may, after Tuesday night, have to look over his shoulder at another candidate whose gambit is not to become the Anti-Romney, but, more like a stalker, to become Mitt Romney (or, better said, supplant his position in the contest).
The Field projects Mitt Romney to come in first in the New Hampshire primary, but finds the contests for second and third place more interesting, reminding that they have been more significant at "picking presidents" in recent decades.
Meet Jon Huntsman. He’s kind of like Romney except that he’s smarter, more agile, and more genuine than Romney. Not that that's a particularly difficult thing to be. Most human beings are. But Huntsman happens to be a candidate on the ballot competing with Romney. He may flop on Tuesday night or he may hit that sweet spot that others before him reached with a second place or strong third place finish. If the latter happens, Romney will then have two flanks to defend in the upcoming primaries and caucuses - something that for him would require from Mitt the ability to walk and chew gum at the same time, not a skill we've yet seen from him - which is more precarious a balancing act than simply having to keep the Anti-Romney field populous, divided and SuperPACed in a big money Whack-a-Mole game of pounding the hammer on the head of whichever one takes the lead at any moment.
It’s the sort of dynamic that, if it happens – and it is entirely plausible, although no sure thing, that it can – would make Romney’s tenuous hold on the “inevitable” armor more vulnerable with each passing day.