Monday, January 9, 2012

Jon Huntsman: America's Rising Republican Star

I was on the fence about endorsing one of the current field of Republican candidates until just hours ago.

It wasn't hesitation over a candidate's policy positions or any late-breaking endorsements that caused me to stall this decision, but because the man I've been inclined to support for quite some time had yet to try his hand at what will soon become a critical test of general election strength: rallying enthusiasm. That was until last night's rally in Exeter.

The man I speak of is Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman.

Jon Huntsman enters Atkinson Town Hall

Is one's ability to excite a crowd  a trivial criterion for choosing a nominee? Absolutely not. Jon Huntsman's chief opponent—Mitt Romney—has cast himself as the presumptive nominee for months, to the extent that he almost solely directs his tiresome attacks against the President and avoids mentions of his Republican opponents. In recent days, as he fended off accusations from his fellow candidates and foolishly chose to lash out at Huntsman, Romney decisively demonstrated to me that his chief weakness is in addressing his fellow Republicans. His inability to grow support in Iowa over four years or break out of his 25% polling range serves as further proof of this point. Romney's attempt to fast-forward to the general election was a way of ducking out of that challenge.


For the good of the American political system and in the hopes of an election ahead that could remain civil, I would like to see the candidates differentiate themselves with worthwhile distinctions from the President, instead of hammering repeatedly at charges of socialism and the like. Republicans may well reject Jon Huntsman, but they do so at their own risk. Having covered seventy-five campaign events this cycle in a few short months, I'm confident that Romney's attacks on Obama will, and have already begun to, tire.

The increasing banality of Romney's scripted lines, and his inability to liven up his rhetoric or demonstrate a believable genuineness reinforce that his chances of unseating Obama in this year's general election will only worsen with time, and voters should not let Mitt Romney begin that general election phase of the 2012 election without having proved himself capable in the Primary campaign. Are an infinitesimally narrow Iowa Caucus victory and a likely win in New Hampshire good enough indicators that he has finally overcome the weaknesses that were exposed in 2008? Hardly.


After New Hampshire, the election will take a decidedly nastier turn. Where New Hampshire voters were largely spared negative television advertising, once South Carolina and all semblances of retail politics are behind us, Florida signals the beginning of the national campaign. With town hall meetings out of the way and the large financial sums necessary to advertise across the country in place, Romney will begin the fight he thinks he can win. But every indication I've picked up on at the events of this campaign cycle indicate that Romney hasn't earned it. Instead of attempting to improve upon his weaknesses revealed in the 2008 campaign, he chooses to avoid the media, dramatically reducing his number of town hall meetings, and pretending that he wasn't actively campaigning in Iowa or New Hampshire.

In addition, Governor Romney's recent public events have been anything but energetic. Although I've been pleasantly surprised with Chris Christie's performance as a surrogate for Romney, the candidate himself hardly shows the capacity to transform into the kind of electric leader that Republicans will need to make inroads against Barack Obama, and Romney does everything but improve his chances with a host of "establishment" elected officials by his side. The tenor his campaign has taken in an election year with a remarkably vulnerable incumbent president confounds me.

Jon Huntsman Between Questions

I concede: for some time I was suspicious that Jon Huntsman's professed similarities with the "comeback kid" of 2008 John McCain were premature, and perhaps even revealed that he was taking advantage of New Hampshire voters' well-known appreciation of candidates dedicated to courting their support handshake by handshake. With time, however, Huntsman's insistence against all odds and in the face of the skepticism of so many that his strategy of retail politics would pay off in the end is the mark of a warrior.

The media's early dismissal of Rick Santorum in Iowa should be proof enough that the proclamations of dedicated candidates cannot be so easily overlooked. Without such an "underdog" mantra to carry Huntsman through over one hundred and sixty public events in the state, we should have been left with the shell of a man, not with the blossoming candidate on display last night. With each passing day it seems Jon Huntsman is the only candidate in New Hampshire who truly embodies the attributes of a "rising star," not a "shooting star" that fizzles out only moments after ignition. Where is there strong leadership visible in Mitt Romney's desperate search for votes and the support of elected officials?

At the Webster Elementary School in Manchester this morning, Mitt Romney supporters didn't back down from the tone set by their candidate, as they chanted "who's Obama's boy? Jonny!" Huntsman supporters, meanwhile, took a markedly more positive tone with calls of "Jon for jobs!"


As far as campaign staff are a legitimate measure of a candidate's merits, I've never ceased to be impressed by Jon Huntsman's crew from the start. Attentive without bordering on paranoia (see: Gingrich, Perry) and kind without displaying any false sincerity, Hunstman's New Hampshire campaign staff confidently steered their candidate through an exhausting schedule with grace, and left him room to work his magic with voters without the constant handling that's so much a part of politics these days.

Notwithstanding a strong finish in tonight's Primary, the road ahead for Huntsman isn't easy. I've been saying for weeks that the most crucially-important campaign staff in the election are Jon Huntsman's staff in South Carolina. The experience he picked up in New Hampshire, and the momentum with which he leaves the state tonight, are a major boost going into a contest where he's still polling in the low single digits. Where Romney pretended to have learned from his mistakes of last election by hiring new staff and shifting his pitch, Huntsman appeared before countless town hall meetings and never shied away  interactions with voters. Where Romney displayed his most glaring weaknesses under pressure, Huntsman has found his footing.


With Republicans heading to the polls today in New Hampshire, it seems clear to me Huntsman is the only candidate with the ability to steer himself away from divisiveness and towards productive consensus-building, and the only candidate who time and time again has demonstrated the candor, humility, tact, and depth of intelligence required of the 21st Century leader our country so desperately needs.

For these reasons, I'm proud to stand by Jon Huntsman tonight in Manchester, and pleased to follow his political career with admiration, whether it reaches its peak in 2012 or beyond.


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