Huntsman's Sneaky Plan
First, he's got to persuade all of New Hampshire's independents to vote for him. How's that going?
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?
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.
Huntsman with signs by Darren McCollester/Getty Images. Huntsman with voters by David Weigel for Slate.