Jon Huntsman Jr.'s campaign manager resigns

Published: Thursday, July 21 2011 10:39 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman Jr. has replaced his campaign manager, raising questions about the future of his bid for the White House.

The departure of Susie Wiles, a Florida operative who helped lay the groundwork for Huntsman's run, was billed by The New York Times as "the first serious sign of trouble" for his campaign.

"It's not good," said Dante Scala, a University of New Hampshire political science professor. "You can't fire the candidate, but you can fire the manager, and that's what happens when a campaign isn't going the way you expect it to. You change things around."

Huntsman, who stepped down as Utah governor in 2009 to become U.S. ambassador to China, has only been in the race for a month. His campaign, headquartered in Orlando, Fla., has been focused on just three states, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida.

Even so, Huntsman is barely registering in most polls. And in Utah, where he was a popular governor, he trails far behind another "favorite son" presidential candidate, former Salt Lake City Olympics leader and fellow Mormon Mitt Romney.

The shakeup was described as a shift to a different type of campaign by Huntsman's top adviser, John Weaver.

"Now the campaign is moving into phase two, which will be more aggressive from a messaging and tactical standpoint, and Matt is prepared to take that on," Weaver said in a statement released by the campaign.

Weaver, who had put together what was described as a "campaign in waiting" for Huntsman with Wiles and others while the candidate was still in China, said Wiles "has served the campaign well and was vital in getting it off the ground in such a short time frame."

Earlier this month, the campaign named Utahn Neil Ashdown as deputy campaign manager. But Matt David, the campaign's communications director, is reportedly replacing Wiles.

Campaign spokesman Tim Miller told the Deseret News that Ashdown will stay with the campaign in the same role.

Ashdown had served as Huntsman's chief of staff as governor and as ambassador. He has traveled with Huntsman on the campaign trail, including to a visit last weekend to Utah.

The New York Times noted Huntsman "has been less visible on the campaign trail,  holding no public events for days at a time or making just one appearance each day."

When Huntsman was in Utah to seek support from governors attending last weekend's annual meeting of the National Governors Association, he held a news conference Friday and a motorcycle ride Saturday.

After leading a midday ride between motorcycle dealerships in Salt Lake and West Valley, Huntsman greeted supporters and gave a brief speech before taking a break to spend time with his family through the rest of the weekend.

He did meet with high-level donors at his family's Deer Valley home, including at a strategy session Saturday morning with supporters who'd flown in from around the country.

Scala said there's a "discrepancy between his largely inside the beltway hype surrounding his campaign and his performance." In New Hampshire, the professor said, Huntsman is just not doing enough to advance his campaign.

"It's great to be talked about in these glowing terms," Scala said. "It's another thing if you buy into all that."

Weaver attempted to counter concerns about the campaign in his statement. Huntsman, he said, has already "built strong relationships with donors, as well as political, policy and grassroots leaders that other candidates have been courting for half a decade."

Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics and a Romney adviser, said Huntsman "did not have the advantage of creating this team over time before the campaign."

Jowers said he doesn't "read anything into this personnel move. It's still very early in the campaign, and it's natural for any campaign to adjust personnel once the teams in place."

That may well mean more changes to come, he said.

"With the Huntsman campaign presumably looking for a bump in poll numbers or other good news, I would not be surprised to see more staff reviews as they take the campaign to the next level," Jowers said.

Utah World Trade Center CEO Lew Cramer, a longtime Huntsman friend, said Huntsman is still running hard.

"I certainly see total commitment to victory," Cramer said. "And a plan for that."

E-mail: lisa@desnews.com, Twitter: dnewspolitics

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