Jim Cole, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Meet Jon Huntsman — Mr. Mainstream.
It's been downhill since the day he announced his White House candidacy. His official presidential coming-out tour was riddled with mistakes, and he's faced campaign staff turnover. With some moderate views, he has struggled to gain traction with a GOP primary electorate pushed to the right by the tea party. And he's lost ground in some national polls, eclipsed by Rick Perry, Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann.
Now Huntsman's trying to turn it all around — by painting his opponents as extreme.
"He's the anti-circus, anti-carnival candidate," John Weaver, Huntsman's senior strategist, said of the newfound strategy.
The former Utah governor, whose support of civil unions for gay couples makes him a moderate among those running, recently suggested that others in the field are on the "extreme end" of the party and could be "unelectable" in a general election against President Barack Obama.
Democrats immediately pounced on Huntsman's comments and used them to assail others in the GOP field.
The strategy carries risks.
Huntsman initially pledged a civil campaign. But voters who usually are turned off by negative campaigning now could view him as just another promise-breaking politician. Also, in a multi-candidate field, there's no guarantee that Huntsman will end up reaping the benefits of tearing down a rival because there are many other candidates than Huntsman — and more conservative ones — for voters to rally behind.
That's apparently a chance he's willing to take five months before the first votes are cast.
For now, Huntsman's primary target is Perry, who is drawing support from the far right and the tea party. Days after entering the race last month, the Texas governor questioned the role humans play in climate change and said there are "gaps" in the theory of evolution.
Without naming Perry, Huntsman snapped back on Twitter, saying: "To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy."
Then, Huntsman singled out Perry directly in an interview with ABC News, taking him to task for saying that if the Federal Reserve puts more money in the U.S. system, it could be considered a treasonous act that would be treated "pretty ugly" back home in Texas. Huntsman also referenced Perry's past comments about Texas possibly seceding from the United States.
"I don't know if that's pre-secession Texas or post-secession Texas," Huntsman said. "But in any event, I'm not sure that the average voter out there is going to hear that 'treasonous' remark and say that sounds like a presidential candidate, that sounds like someone who is serious on the issues."
Huntsman advisers say he'll pick his spots to, as Weaver put it, "speak out about all the inane and crazy comments from our opponents."
"They seem to be doing it every day," Weaver said. "It's like going through a massive buffet line."
Aside from poking holes in Perry and others, Huntsman is trying to cast himself as the serious candidate and this week became the first active Republican in the field to roll out a jobs plan. It won praise from some conservatives.
Still, the former Utah governor's state-by-state path to the nomination is difficult.
He's focusing primarily on New Hampshire, which he predicted Thursday that he would win — even as he acknowledged that his state campaign manager had been fired. Huntsman advisers argue that independents and moderate Republicans will respond well to Huntsman's message. But he's going up against Romney, who has all but planted himself in the state since losing in 2008.
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