Will Huntsman’s New Hampshire-or-Bust Strategy Pay Off?

By Scott Conroy – September 30, 2011

huntsman-bfresh-blogThough it had already been apparent, Jon Huntsman on Thursday removed any remaining doubt that he is now for all intents and purposes a one-state candidate.

In a move that acknowledged financial difficulties and the do-or-die scenario it faces in the nation’s first primary, the Huntsman campaign announced that it will shift its national headquarters from Orlando, Fla., to Manchester, N.H., next month.

Additionally, a significant number of staff members will lose their jobs, RCP has learned.

With New Hampshire voters heading to the polls in a little more than four months, Huntsman’s decision to hunker down in the state will not inspire much confidence in his ability to compete with Mitt Romney and Rick Perry on a national level, at least for the time being.

But conversations with several unaligned observers of New Hampshire presidential politics revealed a consensus that there is time for Huntsman to turn things around and reason to believe that he might be on the verge of doing just that.

Some of the evidence is anecdotal. Pat Griffin of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics, for instance, has noticed a trend as he has driven along Elm Street — the main drag through Manchester — on his way to work this week.

On each subsequent morning, the gathering of young people waving “Jon Huntsman for President” signs on one particular street corner has gotten a bit larger.

“It’s like all of the sudden, Huntsman has a real presence here,” Griffin said. “Now, do you win by waving signs? No. Does it suggest some juice, commitment and energy to New Hampshire? Yes. There are kids on cots all over this state right now who have just come in the last week or two for Huntsman.”

Huntsman is also trending positively in the RealClearPolitics average of New Hampshire polls and will seek additional encouragement in the closely watched WMUR/University of New Hampshire poll, the latest iteration of which will be released in a matter of days.

Following an end-of-the-quarter fundraising push, Huntsman will embark on a robust eight-day campaign swing through the Granite State next week that will lead up to the next GOP debate at Dartmouth College on Oct. 11.

Huntsman already has the largest New Hampshire operation of any candidate in the race — an effort helmed by Sarah Crawford Stewart, whose talents are a source of widespread admiration in the state’s political circles.

“We were scoffed at it all summer, but we built a very methodical organization in the state, and there’s no way to do that other than through hard work,” said John Weaver, Huntsman’s chief national strategist. “The first thing we needed to do was build up our organization, and we’ve done that. I think our organization rivals Mitt Romney’s. I like it better because it’s fresher, hungrier, and it’s a good mixture of people who have actually won the previous two primaries and new people who have never been involved before.”

But a solid staff can only take a candidate so far. Several New Hampshire Republicans say that the time has come for Huntsman to hit the state’s airwaves.

While Weaver would not reveal when the campaign would do so, he hinted that the time to buy advertising in the Manchester or Boston markets would come sooner rather than later.

“We do have to enter into a different phase of that, which won’t discount the retail side, but clearly we have to at some point soon begin advertising — or someone has to, at least,” he said.

That “someone” might be the Our Destiny political action committee — a so-called “super PAC” that operates independently of Huntsman’s campaign and can accept unrestricted campaign donations to promote his message or launch negative ads against his opponents.

Republican ad guru Fred Davis, who resigned from the campaign in July to join Our Destiny PAC, said that the decision of when to launch its ad campaign remained a “closely guarded secret.” But the super PAC will likely serve as a vehicle intended to put a chink in Romney’s New Hampshire armor, while Huntsman’s official campaign focuses on introducing his policies to voters and delivering a positive message.

The tendency to draw comparisons between where Huntsman stands in his uphill climb in New Hampshire and John McCain’s position at this point four years ago — before he launched his come-from-behind victory in the state — is as reflexive as it is off the mark.

After all, McCain benefited from a latent political base in the state that remained from his victory there eight years earlier, and he had a winning issue in his unyielding and passionate support for the surge in Iraq, which separated him from the rest of the field.

But two of the advisers who were instrumental in crafting and carrying out McCain’s New Hampshire victory, both of whom remain neutral in this cycle’s race, said that they see plenty of room for Huntsman to cut into a much larger slice of the Arizona senator’s winning coalition and tighten the gap with Romney.

Steve Duprey, who was a fixture at McCain’s side in 2008, had high praise for the tax plan that Huntsman trotted out earlier this month, which would create three personal income tax rates of 8, 14 and 23 percent.

“His tax plan, I think, was the boldest of any candidate we’ve seen,” Duprey said. “It’s easily understood, and I think it’s going to message very nicely with how New Hampshire thinks about those things.”

Duprey suggested that Huntsman should double down on his already robust effort to curry favor with the editorial board of the influential New Hampshire Union Leader, which published a scathing “anti-endorsement” that eviscerated Romney as a candidate lacking conviction just two weeks before the 2008 primary.

McCain racked up the endorsement of just about every newspaper in the state in 2008. “Boy, did that help,” Duprey said.

Duprey said that Huntsman would also be wise to court smaller papers, ranging from the Laconia Evening Citizen to the Conway Daily Sun, whose endorsements could be particularly influential in a state where local newspapers enjoy serious-minded and extensive readerships and in an election cycle with a crowded field of candidates.

“He needs to claim the mantle of the truth-teller and the straight-talker, and I think he’s doing a good job at that,” Duprey said. “He hasn’t developed the kind of rapport with New Hampshire voters the way John McCain had, but he hasn’t been here as much. He has a first-rate team here in New Hampshire, make no bones about it. If I were advising his campaign, I’d say keep your nose to the grindstone, do as many town-hall meetings a day as you can stand, and keep hanging in there.”

Duprey suggested that the Huntsman campaign — whose financial woes recently led the wealthy candidate to put up an additional $500,000 from his own fortune (after contributing $2 million several months ago) — should run positive advertisements on the inexpensive New Hampshire television stations in order to better define himself and the issues on which he is running.

Huntsman’s campaign says that the candidate’s lack of a defined nucleus in his stump speech is a response to the authenticity and freewheeling style that New Hampshire voters demand, but Mike Dennehy, a key New Hampshire and national figure in both of McCain’s presidential bids, said that Huntsman has thus far been deficient in elucidating the rationale for his candidacy.

“We’re in the fall now, and if you asked a voter what his message was, they wouldn’t be able to tell you,” he said.

However, Dennehy believes that Huntsman’s inability to define himself over the last few months has created an opportunity to garner a more serious look from the state’s fiercely independent voters, who are just now tuning in and often reward substance over style.

“There’s still room to grow and make an impact, but he’s going to have to spend some serious dough to help him define that image, and he’s going to have to start soon,” Dennehy said. “Because of the situation where no candidate has emerged as the alternative to Romney in New Hampshire, it’s still open. And obviously a candidate who spends a great deal of time here, who has a strong organization, and who spends a good amount of money will absolutely be competitive.”

After spending the vast majority of his time in the state thus far hitting the major population centers in the southern part of the state, Huntsman will next look to increase his visibility in the more rural upper counties and along the more liberal-leaning seacoast.

Huntsman’s campaign says to expect shorter stump speeches and longer question-and-answer sessions at town halls — a style of campaigning that will open the candidate to a higher possibility of stumbles but one that New Hampshire voters have long rewarded if handled well.