Huntsman: Unable to Excite the Base

Karen Tumulty

Published: Friday, Dec. 16 2011 7:45 a.m. MST

(c) 2011, The Washington Post

In this most flamboyant of presidential primary seasons, one candidate has been a study in understatement.

"If people, enough of them, hear our message, they will coalesce around it, and we will do fine," former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr. said. "It may take a little longer than those who are willing to light their hair on fire onstage,or engage in crazy political theatrics, but that's OK. We'll get there eventually."

Huntsman offered that optimistic assessment during an interview one recent afternoon in the basement of a church in Weare, N.H., as he prepared for a town hall meeting that, by his tally, would be his 118th campaign event in the state. The night before, the rest of the GOP field had debated on national television in Iowa. Huntsman had not been allowed to join because his poll numbers were too low.

Even if he is right that he could bring voters around "eventually," it could be way too late, considering that the early-voting states in the primary will begin holding their contests in a few weeks.

Then again, plenty of strange things have happened this year, including the rise and fall in rapid succession of Rep. Michele Bachmann, Minn., Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Godfather's Pizza chief executive Herman Cain. Newt Gingrich looked like political roadkill over the summer; now, the former House speaker is at the top of most of the polls. And former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, still the establishment favorite, seems incapable of closing the deal with the party's activist base.

Huntsman, 51, began the race with plenty going for him. His resume is arguably the most well rounded of any GOP contender: popular governor of one of the reddest states in the country; Mandarin-speaking diplomat who served as ambassador to China and Singapore; executive in a successful family business.

Not to mention a multiethnic family — two of his seven children were adopted, from China and India — who look as if they stepped out of Vogue (which actually did a photo spread of them). And a billionaire father willing to bankroll a "super PAC" to support his son's candidacy.

"You're the only varsity player among all the Republicans," retiree Michael Delaney, an independent voter, told Huntsman at his town hall event here.

Huntsman also has offered some of the boldest policy prescriptions. The Wall Street Journal called his tax plan, which would lower rates and eliminate nearly every deduction, "as impressive as any to date in the GOP Presidential field, and certainly better than what we've seen from the front-runners."

Despite all that kindling, the low-key candidate has not ignited. When Huntsman has appeared on the debate stages that have made and broken so many of his rivals, he has all but disappeared.

The Gallup poll has shown a steady erosion in Huntsman's "positive intensity" — the percentage of Republicans who strongly like him minus the percentage with profoundly unfavorable feelings. Indeed, he is the only GOP candidate whose score is a negative number.

Part of the problem, Huntsman said, is that many in the Republican base haven't gotten past the fact that he took the China post in the Obama administration.

"I crossed a partisan line when I went to serve this administration, which was an outgrowth of my personal belief that you always put country first. People looked at that and they concluded that I had committed an egregious sin, and they then just sort of glossed right over us and went on to the next candidate," he said.

Huntsman had some adjusting to do when he reentered the political fray after leaving the highly structured and decorous world of diplomacy.

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