When Jon Huntsman challenged Mitt Romney to a Lincoln/Douglas-style debate on Monday, it was the latest salvo in the political war Huntsman has waged relentlessly against Romney in recent months.
The Huntsman campaign has deployed websites, online videos, and snarky statements and tweets in a wide-ranging effort to drag down Romney’s New Hampshire poll numbers. During the seven debates in the fall, Huntsman attacked Romney twelve times, more than he hit any other contender, according to analysis done by the University of Minnesota’s Smart Politics.
“He appears to have a sharp communications staff that’s real adept at really trying to draw sustained contrast with Mitt Romney,” says New Hampshire Republican strategist Rich Killion. “And they do it very well through videos, social media, and Twitter, and really, just trying to poke the bear.”
Huntsman, currently in fourth place and polling at 10 percent in the RealClearPolitics average of polls, has little chance of surging to an unexpected win, say New Hampshire insiders, despite the amount of time he has spent campaigning in the Granite State.
One reason is that Huntsman has shown little ability to attract Republicans. “The people that he’s getting his only real levels of support from are self-identified Democrats who are registered undeclared . . . [and] self-identified liberals,” says Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire’s Survey Center. “I don’t think he’s pulling much from Romney.” In a Suffolk University/7News poll released today, Huntsman is in third place at 13 percent, primarily because of how many independent voters back him.
But other candidates who haven’t been in the top tier have hurt rivals with their attacks: Just consider how Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann’s tag-teaming on the Gardasil issue hurt Rick Perry. The Huntsman campaign has been tireless in targeting Romney. Many of the most popular videos on Huntsman’s YouTube channel attack Romney for being a flip-flopper or for the fact Massachusetts was 47th nationally in job creation during his tenure as governor. While Saturday night’s debate was still going on, the Huntsman campaign bought 10kbet.com, which joins their other site ScaredMittless2012.com as an aggregator of negative news stories related to Romney.
But, says Killion, Huntsman himself has been “inconsistent” in stressing the anti-Romney message. “And that’s where I think it has fallen short. Unless the candidate himself out of his mouth is advancing that narrative in a sustained fashion, it’s not going to take hold.”
At times, Huntsman has directly targeted Romney. In October he called Romney “a perfectly lubricated weather vane on the important issues of the day,” and a month later he blasted Romney as being “in the hip pocket of Wall Street.” But he has also whiffed. In the CNBC debate in November, Huntsman attacked the idea of imposing tariffs on China to counter currency manipulation, which is a central element of Romney’s policy. When prodded by a questioner, Huntsman characterized the policy as “pandering” but refused to criticize Romney by name.
New Hampshire voters simply aren’t influenced by — or even aware of — Huntsman’s attacks against Romney, say Granite State political insiders. Veteran New Hampshire GOP strategist Pat Griffin cites the campaign’s reliance on Web videos, rather than TV ads, as one reason his attacks have gotten no traction. Griffin suspects that people who watch Web videos tend to already be supporting a candidate. “I don’t think you change a lot of minds with those Web videos.”
By and large, the Romney campaign simply ignores the attacks. They’ve issued no response to Huntsman’s debate challenge. Except for announcing that former Huntsman campaign manager Susie Wiles was now backing Romney, there has been virtually no indication from the Romney campaign that they have ever heard of Jon Huntsman.
#ad#New Hampshire GOP strategist Jamie Burnett highlights another factor explaining why the Huntsman criticisms don’t seem to be resonating among voters. Since Romney’s two campaigns mean that he has been running for president for six years, Burnett observes, “there isn’t anything about him that New Hampshire voters don’t already know.”
“For Huntsman to come out and, whatever the allegations, whatever the attacks, to say, ‘Oh, he’s a flip-flopper on this issue’” is futile, Burnett adds. “Everyone’s known that for four years. And to say that oh, well, ‘He’s done x, or y, or z.’ They know that, and they’ve known it all along. They know what his liabilities are, and they know what his strengths are.”
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.