Richard Foglesong

Author, teacher, political analyst, public speaker

Will Jon Huntsman’s Florida Strategy Work?

Jun 28, 2011

Recently I heard Chris Matthews complain on his Hardball program about the anti-Obama rhetoric of Republican presidential hopefuls. “They need to come to their convention in Tampa and say, ‘I disagree with Pres. Obama on the economy, the deficit, and healthcare, but he’s as good an American as I am,’” said Matthews. “But they won’t say that, none of them will.”

Well, Jon Huntsman has proven Matthews wrong. Huntsman is the former two-term governor of Utah and former Ambassador to China, appointed by Pres. Obama. In announcing his presidential bid, he said he would criticize Obama as president but not as an American.

In raising the civility bar, Huntsman might give Pres. Obama, his former boss, a tough race. He is young (51), handsome, and smart. He’s a proven vote-getter, winning re-election as governor in neon red Utah with 78 percent of the vote. And his political views are moderate enough to attract support from independents and disaffected Democrats.

He actually believes in global climate change, something no other GOP presidential candidate does. Wouldn’t that be grand for the Grand Old Party—a standard bearer who believes in science and puts the planet’s interest over placating Big Oil?

But can this successful governor and devout Mormon win nomination in a party dominated, at least in the primary election process, by social conservatives and Tea Party activists? His decision to pitch his national campaign tent in Orlando and focus on Florida bodes well for his candidacy. Though risky, this campaign strategy might bear fruit if early primary outcomes are inconclusive.

Past history says the Florida primary—following ones in Iowa, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Nevada—is where Republican candidates consolidate victory, building upon momentum gained from earlier primary contests. Applying that reasoning , Iowa might go to Tea Party favorite Michelle Bachman, who was born there, and New Hampshire to an Establishment type such as fellow New Englander Mitt Romney. Then Florida, with its diverse array of Republicans, would become the tie-breaker, determining which frontrunner has broad enough appeal to represent the party.

It may not go that way, however. The first primaries may only muddy the waters, leaving no clear frontrunners. That’s why I’m calling Huntsman the Muddy Waters candidate: he gains an advantage if Romney and Bachman are singing the blues when they come to Florida.

In running against Romney, his fellow Mormon, Huntsman has newcomer appeal. No Republican or Democrat in modern times has won his party’s presidential nod after losing the nomination four years earlier—except for Ronald Reagan, who ran in different circumstances against a sitting president, Gerald Ford. (Other partial exceptions are George Bush Sr. and Al Gore, who, after serving as vice president, won their party’s nomination after losing it eight years later.) Practically speaking, candidates have but one shot at their party’s nomination, unless they take the number-two slot. Hence, Huntsman’s prospects in ’12 are better than Romney’s.

Of course, winning Florida is no cakewalk. It takes a mountain of money to compete in six media markets and an extensive campaign organization to win in such a large and diverse state. That will be Huntsman’s burden: to make his Florida focus work. Here, he’ll benefit from the services of Susie Wiles, his national campaign strategist, who was also Gov. Rick Scott’s political tactician.

Granted, Scott has bombed as governor. Granted too he could afford to self-fund his campaign, a huge advantage. Still, that did not make his election inevitable. Quite a few political analysts (including this one) had egg on their faces election night 2010, having soothsaid Scott’s defeat. Like it or not, Scott ran an effective campaign considering who he was and what his liabilities were as a candidate, and the strategist responsible for that success is now masterminding Jon Huntsman’s presidential bid. That assistance, coupled with support from former governor Jeb Bush, might earn Huntsman victory in Florida’s primary, making him the GOP frontrunner.