In early May, fresh off the plane, Jon Huntsman gave the commencement address at the University of South Carolina.
As the former Utah governor weaved lyrics from Carolina singer-songwriter Ben Folds into his remarks, his advisers huddled near the back of Colonial Life arena.
It was an important moment: The speech, delivered days after he resigned as U.S. ambassador to China, was Huntsman’s first in the Palmetto State as a potential 2012 presidential contender.
Huntsman, according to most observers, aced it. His Beijing anecdotes and soft-focus stories charmed. But it was, of course, a speech to fresh-faced college graduates, not to a room of conservative primary voters. Winning over the latter, especially in the Deep South, will be Huntsman’s challenge in coming months.
New Hampshire, with its flinty independent spirit, is seen as prime Huntsman territory by his team. He needs to do well there, and Huntsman’s recent itinerary, chock full of Wolfeboro and Manchester meet-and-greets, hints at his strategy.
South Carolina is another integral part of his 2012 calculus. Inside of Huntsman’s camp, there is a real push to make a play there. Early decisions reflect that consensus: For starters, Huntsman will base his campaign in Orlando, a short flight to Columbia and Charleston.
Huntsman expects to have room to grow in this early-primary state, especially with Mississippi governor Haley Barbour out of the mix. Strength here, so the thinking goes, could enable him to bounce off a strong showing in New Hampshire and into national contention. John McCain followed this path in 2008: He lost in Iowa, won New Hampshire, and won a plurality among a crowded field in South Carolina.
The primary, though, is a long way off. Huntsman, who is near the bottom of most national polls, is attempting simply to get his name out, to build some buzz before he officially jumps in.
The early effort has had its ups and downs. Last month, Huntsman’s high-profile jaunt around New Hampshire drew rave reviews from the mainstream press. He has also drawn praise for vocally supporting Rep. Paul Ryan’s fiscal reforms.
Yet many conservatives are skeptical about his record. They hear that Huntsman supported cap-and-trade, was open to discussing health-care mandates, and accepted stimulus dollars and scratch their heads.
Richard Quinn, Huntsman’s senior South Carolina consultant, acknowledges that Huntsman has a steep climb to the nomination.
Still, Quinn, who was Ronald Reagan’s state media director in 1980 and a senior adviser to John McCain during the 2000 and 2008 South Carolina primaries, argues that Huntsman can win in the south, and emerge as the most viable general-election candidate in the field.
Quinn sees McCain as a model of sorts for Huntsman. “[McCain] was not perfect by any means in terms of conservative views on everything,” he says. “But people had tremendous admiration for him and he was a conservative on the issues that mattered most.”
Huntsman is not a decorated military veteran like McCain, but he does have, Quinn says, a maverick streak, valuable foreign-policy experience, and an at-ease persona that Quinn bets will click with southerners as the Utahn becomes more known on the stump.
“I have met the other guys,” Quinn says, reflecting on the competition. “Tim Pawlenty came to my office; he was a nice guy when riding in the car. But even when you had twelve people in the room, he got stiff. That just happens to some people.
“Huntsman is different,” he asserts. “In that Reaganesque way, he is immediately likeable, casual, quick-witted, and self-effacing. He has that twinkle in his eye. He does not give you the feeling that he is on message, spinning you. I have not seen that kind of energy since Reagan was here in 1980.”
Sure, I say, some may swoon, but many will not. They will wonder whether Huntsman is, as his opponents whisper, nothing more than a breezy Utah moderate.
“There are two groups putting that out there,” Quinn replies. “You have the Obama crowd, who wants to pelt him to death with rose petals, and the other Republican candidates. We think that voters are ready for a fresh face. Nobody is happy with the field as it lies.”
“When Reagan came to South Carolina in 1980, he was not the establishment choice,” he adds. “Even Strom Thurmond endorsed John Connally. Very few people in elected officialdom were for Reagan.”
Quinn shrugs off Huntsman’s perceived weaknesses. “I don’t think the RINO or ‘Utah moderate’ labels will hold up when his record is scrutinized,” he says. “He was a solid conservative for both terms.”
On the China question, “you have to secretly admire Obama’s political acumen, putting his most attractive potential adversary on the other side of the world,” he says.
Long term, Quinn sees the ambassadorial experience as an asset. “He can turn that around in an instant. He did it as his patriotic duty,” he says. “We speak as one nation. When you get a call from the commander in chief, you have to consider it. To refuse for partisan reasons would be disqualifying. This would be a huge advantage in the general election.”
Quinn also denies that Huntsman’s past support for civil unions is a liability: “He has said over and over that he is for traditional marriage, that it should be restricted to one man and one woman, that it is a sacred religious bond. But civil unions are not religious, they are a state function.”
On green issues, “Huntsman is probably more of an environmentalist than some Republicans,” Quinn notes. “Conservatives should be conservationists. He is clearly not in favor of any type of energy reform that would be harmful to businesses.”
What about Huntsman’s Mormon faith? According to a Politico report, Mitt Romney’s top aides “view anti-Mormon views as a challenge in South Carolina.” Does Huntsman, too?
“Look, you go out and make a bunch of phone calls and you’ll find somebody who says, ‘I can never support a Mormon.’ But that is not a big group,” Quinn says. “It’s a slander against South Carolina to say that we are religiously biased, and that kind of thing is said by only people who know nothing about this state or its history.”
Beyond Quinn, Huntsman is supported in South Carolina by Mike Campbell, Mike Huckabee’s 2008 state chairman. Joel Sawyer, a former state-GOP director and longtime Mark Sanford aide, is another notable name on the roster. GOP heavies Fred Davis and John Weaver, two former McCain strategists, sit at the top.
Weaver, for his part, has been looking to cajole the former governor into the 2012 race since at least 2009. Weaver and Quinn organized a reception for Huntsman with prominent South Carolina Republicans that February. “We were all jacked up after that, ready to get started on building a base of support, starting four years early,” Quinn recalls. “When he accepted the position in China, we put everything on hold.”
That holding pattern is over. Quinn, a veteran operative in his sixties, is cheerfully optimistic. Republicans, however, remain simply curious, if that.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.