Huntsman Mistakenly Runs McCain-Style Campaign

Byron York

6/28/2011 12:01:00 AM - Byron York
Why are so many conservatives wary of Jon Huntsman? Certainly the former Utah governor's positions on issues like cap and trade and civil unions trouble conservatives of both the economic and social variety. But there are other candidates, like front-runner Mitt Romney, whose positions also cause conservatives to grumble. So why does Huntsman stand out?

One answer is the company he keeps. Despite his solidly conservative views on many issues, Huntsman has gathered a group of advisers and supporters from the moderate-to-liberal side of the GOP spectrum and has received largely favorable treatment in the political press. Many conservatives look at that and say: There must be something wrong.

Huntsman's top campaign aide is John Weaver, who was John McCain's top campaign aide in 2000 and in the early stages of the 2008 campaign -- campaigns that often raised the ire of the GOP base. (Weaver has also worked for some Democrats.) Other McCain veterans have signed on with Huntsman, as well. Still others, like Mark McKinnon -- the aide who worked for McCain in the 2008 primaries but left because he did not want to campaign against Barack Obama -- also favor Huntsman. (McKinnon is a co-founder of the "No Labels" movement, much derided by conservatives.)

When Huntsman took second place in the Republican Leadership Conference straw poll in New Orleans recently, Politico reported that he benefited from the vote wrangling of former Louisiana Rep. Joseph Cao, whom conservatives well remember as the only Republican to vote for Obamacare in the House. There's another mark against Huntsman. And that's before conservatives consider the fact that Huntsman spent the past two years working for the Obama administration.

The conservative base pays close attention to the people who surround a candidate. In the eyes of some, personnel can trump policy. "At both the Republican Leadership Council and at Right Online (another conservative gathering), the majority of conservative activists I spoke to said they knew nothing of Huntsman's positions," says conservative activist Erick Erickson, "but his campaign team had the makings of the second coming of John McCain."

Huntsman has yet to make much of an impression on the voting public. He has virtually no support in early polls, and Gallup recently found that while he is now known by more Republicans than ever before, the positive intensity of those who know him has declined, suggesting that he is "not attracting the same level of support from Republicans who have newly been introduced to him as he did from those who were familiar with him early on."

If Huntsman has one solid constituency, it's the press. McCain once semi-jokingly referred to reporters as his "base," and Huntsman seems to be moving into a similar spot, enjoying mostly positive treatment from publications like The New York Times and The New Yorker. That's another turnoff for the GOP base.

Meanwhile, Huntsman is quite open about his plan to appeal to independent voters and Democrats who are eligible to vote in the New Hampshire and South Carolina Republican primaries. It's the old McCain strategy, which failed in 2000 but succeeded in 2008. Of course, it succeeded in 2008 because McCain worked hard to undo some of the damage he had done eight years earlier by alienating the GOP base. He took some hits from his former friends in the press, but he won the nomination.

Maybe a McCain-esque strategy will work for Huntsman. But it probably won't, for one basic reason: Jon Huntsman is not John McCain.

As much as McCain aggravated the base -- and many couldn't stand him -- Republicans had a deep respect for his record as a war hero. McCain is an extraordinary man who has made extraordinary sacrifices for the United States, and for Republicans who revere military service, that made up for a host of political offenses. Try to imagine candidate McCain without the heroism; he mostly would have irritated people.

Huntsman has a solid record as governor of Utah. With his knowledge of Chinese and his experience as an ambassador, he has foreign-policy credentials most other GOP candidates don't have. He might conceivably appeal to independent voters. But trying to run as John McCain without the heroism won't work. McCain was uniquely positioned to run the kind of campaign he did. Huntsman isn't.