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Sunday, January 15, 2012

Jon Huntsman's Path to Victory

(Editor's note: This post is the second in a six-part series between now and next Saturday's South Carolina Primary. Each part will examine how each candidate might pull off a nomination.
For Rick Perry's, click here.)

On August 27, you return from your 30-week hike across the Himalayan Mountains. It was an eye-opening experience. You spent months in India, Bhutan, and Nepal, hiking trails and scaling peaks. You were granted an audience with the Dali Lama, who taught you about compassion, enlightenment, and the Buddha. You breathed the freshest air, had the most surreal time, and grew the biggest beard of your life.

Upon your return home, there are scores of voicemails and emails from your closest family and friends who want to see you. You also see the three nurses from across the street looking at you through your windows, their longing eyes pleading that you invite them over like you did that night before you left for southern Asia.

But you have your priorities in order. You need to catch up on the Republican race. Today, August 27, is the first day of the Republican National Convention. You want to see by just how much Mitt Romney won and his selection as his vice-presidential nominee. You turn on MSNBC to see Rachel Maddow's dramatic declaration to liberal America that the Republicans don't care about the American middle class as her monolithic co-hosts vociferously nod in agreement. Twenty minutes later, they relay the Republican nominee.

Jon Huntsman.

"Jon Huntsman?!" you incredulously bark. "How in Gautama's name did that happen?" To get the answers, you go to what has become the most popular presidential politics blog on the internet--Presidential Politics for America. Here's what you learn:

There was one more Republican surge left. Jon Huntsman's 17 percent, third place finish in New Hampshire was the beginning of that surge. A majority of Republicans were still dissatisfied with Mitt Romney, but their first-choice conservative alternatives never really showed a complete package. Voters wanted Rick Perry's executive experience, Rick Santorum's social conservatism, and Newt Gingrich's intellectual ferocity and articulation. But Perry was also terrible in debates, Santorum was too polarizing and lost his home state in his last senate campaign, and Gingrich was, well, Newt Gingrich. Each had a meteoric rise and moment in the sun, but each found themselves back in the shade just as quickly.

But Huntsman had just enough of everything to make his surge last. As the enormously popular former Governor of Utah, he had executive experience, like Perry. He's historically a much more consistent conservative than Romney, thus appealing to the Santorum constituency. He is articulate and bright in debates and stump speeches, much like Gingrich. Moreover, he had foreign policy experience in an essential area--Cino-American relations--and he could match Romney's "electability" argument as Huntsman, too, appealed to Independent voters. All he needed was some money and viability for the Republican Party to take him seriously.

After a better-than-expected showing in South Carolina--not top 3 but ahead of expectations--Huntsman's father, billionaire Jon Huntsman Sr., gave his son's SuperPAC a generous donation of five million dollars. This sudden influx of primary oxygen allowed Huntsman to stay breathing while Perry dropped out. Huntsman's presence in the race increasingly limited Romney's overwhelming success with Republican moderates, meaning Romney did not run away with the primary as many pundits expected he would after South Carolina. Eventually, without the kind of money Huntsman could spend, Gingrich and Santorum fell off the pace. With less attention on them, Huntsman coalesced the sizeable anti-Romney/Paul majority of the Republican Party.

Huntsman gave Romney a run in Florida, which also helped Huntsman's legitimacy. Just as Huntsman polled poorly in conservative Iowa but well in moderate New Hampshire, so, too, did similar circumstances allow him a strong showing in moderate Florida after a finish out of the top 3 in conservative South Carolina.

Throughout February, Huntsman continued giving passionate speeches concerning troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, Congressional term limits, and Romney's not-so-conservative history.

"But wait a minute," you said to yourself, "There's no way that Huntsman could compete nationally with Romney. One state at a time is one thing, but Super Tuesday should have knocked Huntsman out!" But then you went on to read about the most important endorsement of the Republican Primary.

Ultimately, the turning point occurred right before Super Tuesday. Plucky Ron Paul--who, by March, is the only other candidate still in the race--acknowledged he had little chance to win the nomination and that he had shaped the debate as far as he could. Moreover, he saw two distinct, viable options for the Republican nomination: Huntsman's fervent plea to withdraw troops, versus Romney's hawkish "military so powerful that no one would think of challenging it." Consequently, Paul dropped out, urging his passionate, networked, coast-to-coast supporters to back Huntsman on Super Tuesday. They did, and Huntsman was Super Tuesday's big winner.

For the balance of March, Huntsman performed well in state after state, competing in all, winning many. The race was as close as Obama-Clinton was four years ago, and it dragged on throughout the spring. In fact, the primary scrutiny continued through the last state of the primary season, which was held on June 26. The state?

Utah.

In what pundits call the Mormon Showdown, Huntsman, its former governor with an 80 to 90 approval rating, won the state easily and clinched the nomination. Of course, Romney, at the end of his political career, positioned himself to be the VP choice. When asked who would be his vice-presidential nominee, however, Huntsman combined two of his hallmark phrases from the campaign: "There is a trust deficit in this country, and it's because of candidates like that." He went with Rubio.

And that's how Jon Huntsman became the Republican nominee for President.

"Wow," you remark, stroking your gargantuan beard. "That almost seems like an impossible story. Seriously impossible. Like, there's no way that could actually happen impossible."

Yeah, probably.

(Editor's note: This was the second in a six-part series on each candidate before the South Carolina Primary. See you back here for Part III.)

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