ALTON BAY, N.H.—If they are not willing to wear shorts—and no one is suggesting that they should—it's tough for politicians to blend at summer fairs. Here is how Jon Huntsman Jr. tries: He climbs out of a black SUV to catch the last weekend of the outdoor festival, and sees half a dozen curious voters waiting outside the restaurant Shibley's at the Pier. He is wearing black Ray Bans, black-and-gold sneakers, and trim black jeans. You could say he looked like he just walked out of an Annie Leibovitz shoot, but you'd be wrong: That photo shoot was weeks ago. Today, he's meeting swing voters who love him instantly.
"I'm pleased that you're civil," says Joe Polidoro, a pharmaceuticals salesman who'd brought his young daughter Stephanie to meet Huntsman. "You make sense, compared to some of your competitors."
Huntsman finishes the script. "Well, this country is ready for a common sense conversation. A common conversation based on practical, real-world solutions. You know, like the kind you do as governor. That's where we are. You'll like the economic plan we've put together." He tousles Stephanie's hair. "Stephanie will like it in particular, because it addresses the concerns of your generation! So you're not so saddled with debt."
The former governor of Utah and ambassador to China—he is quicker to mention the first job than the second—walks on. Polidoro explains just what he likes about Huntsman.
"I think he's smarter than the others," he says. "He makes sense. I mean, look who else you've got out there—Rick Perry, he wants to secede from the country! I thought that was settled by the Supreme Court in the 19th century. You can't secede from the country."
So he doesn't like Perry, but he likes Huntsman. What other Republicans does he like?
"I voted for Obama last time," he says. "The Republicans aren't giving him time to try to get us out of this [mess]. It's really a disgrace."
So, if the election came down to Huntsman or Obama, who would he vote for? Polidoro thinks about it for a couple seconds.
"I'd probably vote for Obama," he says.
In no time at all, I've met the typical Jon Huntsman voter. It's been three days since Huntsman replaced his New Hampshire state director, two weeks since a poll showed his campaign in the state tied with those of Herman Cain and "Some Other Candidate." But Huntsman's just launched a "media blitz"—the actual term used by his campaign—and made his obvious campaign strategy even more explicit. He explains to some voters who are standing a few feet away from the departing Polidoro.
"We've got a divide and conquer strategy," Huntsman says. "There are always going to be political extremes. Ten, fifteen percent on the right. Ten, fifteen percent on the other side."
It's a simple theory. I will now try to make it more complicated:
1. There are many serious Republican candidates vying for the conservative vote.
2. New Hampshire has semiopen primaries, which means independents can register with a new party on primary day and choose a Republican or Democratic candidate.
3. There is no Democratic primary this year, because there is no challenge to President Obama.
3a. What do reporters like almost as much as primary challengers? Speak-truth-to-power insurgent centrists!
4. These insurgent centrists, with no Democratic primary to vote in, could cross over and help give Huntsman a surprise victory in New Hampshire.
5. Huntsman surges, wins the nomination, and reluctantly-but-firmly takes the presidency from the nice guy who made him an ambassador.
There are holes in the theory. In 1996, the last time there was a GOP primary and no race on the Democratic side, the result was not a victory for moderation. It was a surprise win for Pat Buchanan. The founding myth of the Huntsman campaign is that he can repeat John McCain's strategy of winning independents, but McCain actually did very well with conservative Republicans. Also, even if he pulls off the New Hampshire upset, how does he survive in the other 49 states?
Good questions! In the meantime, Huntsman is going to meet every persuadable voter he can and charm them senseless. He's a fantastic retail politician. He avoids the Mitt Romney mistake of guessing demographic data about voters; he asks questions. He has a few lines that no one but a Tea Partier could disagree with.
"Check out our plan," he tells a few diners on the lake. "Just common-sense stuff."
"We're trying to get a common-sense conversation going," he tells a man selling straw hats, which are advertised as "crushable" and able to withstand high boat speeds. "Go to the website. Huntsman's the name."
"I want the troops to come home as soon as they can," he tells Andrea Burns, who's selling jewelry at the fair. "I think it's time for some nation-building here in America."
The people who like Huntsman the most tell me that they're Democrats or independents, or occasionally, tourists—this is the end of the summer, when working stiffs from Massachusetts and Connecticut to visit the lake. The tourists can't vote for him; the Democrats have to change their registrations weeks in advance of the primary, and are iffy about the prospect. Is a vote for Jon Huntsman worth a lifetime of mail from John Sununu? When Huntsman meets a conservative, it's a harder sell. One man asks him, again and again, whether America's decline is linked to morals.
"You don't think there's a moral component?" the man huffs.
"There's no doubt there's a component beyond economics," says Huntsman. There are TV cameras that would capture any pander, any James Dobson-ian effort to link gay marriage or X-rated web sites to the economy. Eventually, Huntsman finds an out.
"What about you? What do you think?"
"There are too many people dependent on the government. We've lost a sense of personal responsibility."
"I totally buy that," says Huntsman. He schleps for the economic plan, the heart of which is an ultraconservative reduction of tax rates linked to an end to all tax deductions. "It's detailed. I think you'll like it. It's the heart and soul of entitlement reform. It's the heart and soul of tax reform."
Rep. Dave Knox, one of the three local state reps who's endorsed Huntsman, looks on with delight. "He's one of the most intelligent Republicans running, if not the most intelligent," he says. "He's the only one who has foreign policy experience. He speaks Mandarin Chinese! How many ambassadors do you know who speak the local language?" But he acknowledges that Huntsman is moving up slowly. "A lot of us who backed McCain are behind him. I'm not sure why we all are, but it's a good start."
Before he goes, Huntsman orders take-out for anyone who wants it. He gets clams; state Rep. Jeff St. Cyr gets chocolate-and-peanut-butter ice cream. As the candidate leaves, I ask him about the tax plan, because scrapping deductions and lowering rates would effectively mean higher taxes for some lower-income people who are benefiting from the current code.
"Under the plan, everybody's rates will go down," he says. "You start with that approach, you start with that mindset, but you've got to remember, it's a two-party system."
Firm, conservative, moderate—an immaculate nonanswer. Now, off to give a few thousand more of them.