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.
Huntsman advisers are counting on Perry to push Romney to the right, which they say would leave more voters across the ideological spectrum up for grabs. The hope is that the crop of conservative candidates in the field will split the vote of the GOP base, giving Huntsman a path. It's not clear whether Huntsman, who is in the low single digits in some nationwide polls and not doing much better in New Hampshire, will be able break through.
"The trouble is when all you read about is Romney and Perry, the fact of the matter is even like a small state like New Hampshire, you can't talk to every voter one on one," said Jamie Burnett, a New Hampshire political operative who worked on Romney's campaign in 2008.
Still, Huntsman is drawing crowds as he did this week at the popular Politics and Eggs discussion series.
Derailing Romney is certain to require a lot of money, though it's unclear whether Huntsman's campaign has been able to raise it.23 comments on this story
His advertising man, Fred Davis, left the campaign in July to start an independent political action committee to work to get Huntsman elected. The structure allows the committee, which can't coordinate with the campaign, to accept unlimited contributions from donors, essentially freeing the campaign from the $2,500 per person limit on traditional campaign donations. And it potentially allows Huntsman's billionaire father, Jon Huntsman Sr., to open his checkbook for his son's presidential bid.
The senior campaign staff assumes that kind of cash will be available — and hints that Huntsman himself might reconsider using more of his own considerable personal fortune after providing at least $2 million to start his campaign.
Since then, Huntsman has blown the sky-high expectations observers had for the shadow campaign his advisers built while he was serving as Obama's ambassador to China. His name was spelled wrong on the press passes for his presidential announcement tour, the Statue of Liberty wasn't in the TV frame despite the fact that site was chosen for that very reason, and there was initially no pilot to fly the candidate and his entourage to the next stop.
Then his campaign manager, Florida political operative Susie Wiles, resigned amid reports of staff turmoil. And later, Huntsman went to Iowa for his first debate and turned in a lackluster performance. He'll get a chance to try to redeem himself — and set himself apart — next week when he takes the debate stage in Simi Valley, Calif.