Huntsman prepares all-or-nothing Florida campaign

Katie McHugh Associate Editor
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Jon Huntsman has placed his campaign headquarters in Orlando, Florida, where the Florida straw poll will be held on September 23, a campaign move that has intrigued political observers and strategists.

“Logistics matter,” says Rick Wilson, owner of Intrepid Media, a Florida consulting firm. “The biggest prize in going outside traditional bubble of Iowa and New Hampshire is Florida.”

Orlando is located along the famous I-4 Corridor of Florida, where the political strategists believe the primary election is won or lost.

Huntsman’s plan to operate from Florida “makes eminently good sense” and is a “unique campaign decision,” according to Wilson. Florida’s size is often underestimated by candidates, making travel expensive and time-consuming. “Driving from Miami to Pensacola is like driving from Miami to DC,” says Wilson.

Huntsman’s base is close to the Orlando International Airport, which Wilson sees as a wise move: access to an airfield makes statewide and nationwide travel easier.

Huntsman also has personal ties to his campaign’s headquarters: His wife Mary Kaye was born in Orlando.

“Mrs. Huntsman grew up in Orlando and they still have family friends here,” said Huntsman’s press secretary Tim Miller in an email. “So given their roots in the city and Florida’s importance in the Primary and General Election calendar Orlando made the most sense for our national headquarters.” (George Will: Iowa showdown hinges on Perry, Huntsman announcement ‘had a whiff of moral arrogance’)

Jay J. Beyrouti, chairman of the Pinella County Republican Executive Committee, is excited Huntsman based his national headquarters in Florida.

“We are a true bellwether state, and a driving force behind having the early primary,” he said in an email. “It’s fair to say if you win Florida, you’re going to win the presidency. The diversity we enjoy in our state is our strength. We are the perfect picture of what America looks like.”

But other observers are skeptical of Huntsman’s late-game gamble.

“I don’t understand Huntsman’s path to the nomination at all,” says Eric Jotkoff, communications director of the Florida Democratic Party. “Waiting until Florida comes around isn’t a viable strategy.”

“It’s only natural that Huntsman would base his campaign in Disney Fantasyland since it’s the only place where Floridians would embrace a politician that flip-flops so often,” he added.

John Stemberger, chairman of the socially conservative Florida Family Action PAC, says Huntsman probably “doesn’t stand a chance” in Florida, noting he believes the candidate will fail to win the loyalty of the Tea Party, evangelicals and pro-life Catholics, and establishment Republicans.

“I don’t know how he’d win,” said Stemberger. “At best, he can hope for a VP pick. But I don’t see how he’d make it in the first four or five states.”

Stemberger believes that if Huntsman managed to land the endorsement of a powerful Republican, like Karl Rove, and place in the top three for the Florida straw poll, he could build momentum for his campaign.

But, he added, straw polls attract mostly party activists and “are not demographically scientific.”

The importance of the straw polls themselves may be questionable, especially since Mitt Romney, the GOP front-runner, refuses to participate in them.

Huntsman still faces an uphill battle for the Republican nomination even if he wins the straw poll. The enthusiasm of party activists might not reflect the more varied views of voters in the large swing state.

Undeterred by the challenges he faces, Huntsman has filled his staff with seasoned campaign veterans, while the other GOP contenders have so far declined to pour substantial campaign resources into the state, according to TampaBay.com.

Back in 2008, Mitt Romney and John McCain had laid significant groundwork for an extensive Florida campaign.

Rudy Giuliani bet it all on Florida in 2008 but lost, and Huntsman has been fending off potentially cloying comparisons to the former New York mayor’s doomed campaign.

“Florida, I think it’s where the Republican nomination is going to be decided. This will be a key state for us. We are going to work it very, very aggressively,” Huntsman told the Washington Post.

During this election cycle, however, only dropout candidate Haley Barbour and Huntsman lined up their staff in the key state. Romney and Tim Pawlenty so far appear to have only financial advisers stationed there.

Large reservoirs of GOP campaign talent have so far been left untapped by the Huntsman campaign and others, including Sally Bradshaw, a key strategist for Romney’s 2008 campaign, and Brett Doster, founder and president of Front Line Strategies, a PR firm specializing in Florida GOP politics.

“Everyone has a different political calculus for how to win,” says Wilson. “Florida meets [Huntsman’s] particular strengths and weaknesses.”