Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman has staked his campaign on a strong performance in the first-in-the-nation primary in New Hampshire, but observers in the state say that with just three weeks left, Huntsman’s message is confusing, and they are not sure whether he is running as the most liberal candidate in the race or the most conservative presidential hopeful.
Initially, Huntsman was painted as the most moderate candidate in the field. His campaign’s spokesperson vehemently disputes that characterization. But as Fergus Cullen, former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, pointed out, “he certainly made no effort to push back the perception that he was a moderate in the race.”
In recent weeks, Huntsman’s rhetoric has turned to emphasizing his strong conservative credentials as governor of Utah, and one of the super PACs supporting him is running ads painting him as the most conservative candidate in the field.
Huntsman spokesman Tim Miller has pushed back on the idea that there are conflicting presentations of Huntsman’s candidacy — recently in an email to TheDC’s Matt Lewis.
On the subject of the super PAC ads, he told TheDC in a phone interview, “the super PAC ads are not us, so I have no control over them. That’s a separate entity, and they can do what they want to do.”
Campaigns are not allowed to coordinate with super PACs in any way, but the combined message to voters is nonetheless unclear.
Several New Hampshire observers suggest that at this point in the race, he should be going all in and aggressively targeting the moderate Republicans and independent voters, the demographic he’s doing best with, rather than trying to appeal to the broader conservative base.
“Based on 2008, about 55 percent of [primary voters] or so will self identify as conservative. And so the 45 percent who don’t identify as conservative — and it’s probably higher this year because there’s no Democratic primary — aren’t necessarily tea party conservatives either, and no one’s talking to them,” said Charlie Arlinghaus, President of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy. (RELATED: Full coverage of the New Hampshire primary)
“There’s this constant competition for about half of the primary electorate, or probably a little more than half of the primary electorate, and everybody’s ignoring the other half,” Arlinghaus said. “Well, that other half is where Huntsman is doing the best, among people who think of themselves as moderates.”
“I think his difficulty has been in finding his voice, and I don’t think he’s yet figured out who he is,” Arlinghaus noted. “He talks in a way that a lot of less conservative Republicans like, and yet all the ads on TV from his super PAC, and some of the messages in the newspaper are all about ‘you know, jeez, I’m just as conservative as these guys.’ And I think it’s a marketing issue that you need to figure out who exactly you’re trying to talk to and talk to them and not have mixed messages.”
New Hampshire-based political consultant Patrick Hynes called Huntsman’s strategy in the state “a mess.”
“You would think at this late stage of the game he would be positioning himself for the moderate, undeclared voters who will participate in the open primary. This universe of voters is still up for grabs. Instead, though, Huntsman sees this as the right time to dart rightward in a field filled with conservatives. It is a very bizarre strategy,” Hynes said.
“He’s a wonderful guy, he was a very successful governor … but he hasn’t really had a consistent discernible theme, and I think that has hampered with him,” echoed Steve Duprey, New Hampshire’s Republican National Committeeman and a Romney supporter.
If he was going to try to “appeal to that base,” Duprey said, referring to Republican conservatives, “perhaps he might want to have tried that from the get go.”
Cullen, who noted that he and his wife hosted a house party for Huntsman, an offer they extended to numerous candidates, said that Huntsman is “not quite distinguishing himself from the other candidates.”
“Quiet confidence and mainstream conservatism isn’t enough,” Cullen added.
“You know, early in the campaign, I’d say six months ago, I thought he was just being too subtle about drawing distinctions,” Cullen said. “He’d say, ‘it’s time for us to come home, we need to work on our core’ … he wasn’t saying so clearly in a way that I think voters would understand, ‘look, if you think that ten years in Iraq is enough, I agree with you, and I’m saying it’s time to come home and maybe we’ll need to go back in, but ten years is enough.'”
Allowing himself to be labeled as a moderate, Cullen said, was “the strategic choice that maybe they made in error.”
“What they really wanted to be was the independent, not the moderate,” Cullen said. “You know, John McCain received 37 or 35 percent of the vote — not on ideological grounds, but because he was seen as independent-minded, not because he was seen as a moderate. He was obviously very conservative on some issues, and more pragmatic on other issues, but the theme was that he was independent-minded, and voters appreciated that. And I think that if Huntsman had run in that kind of a mold, that would have been perhaps more helpful for him in the long run.”
Miller insisted that Huntsman had not “shunned the conservatives to start the campaign” and said that there had been no changes in tactics whatsoever.
“In order to win the Republican primary here you can’t just get independents, and you can’t get just Republicans. … You need to appeal to everybody, and Gov. Huntsman is doing that,” said Miller, calling him “the most electable conservative in the race.”
“I think that any time that somebody is going to be willing to go across party lines and serve their country, that labels are going to be affixed,” said Miller, referring to Huntsman’s service as ambassador to China under the Obama administration. But Huntsman, he said, has been “consistent.”
“We believed at the beginning of this campaign and we believe now that he is the most electable conservative and he is going to appeal to conservatives and moderates,” Miller said.
Arlinghaus said that the attempt to appeal to a broad array of voters is hindering the clarity of Huntsman’s message. “You hear a speech from Huntsman, and you’re generally hearing stuff you didn’t know before,” he said. “And at some point that needs to change. His message needs to be more carefully defined and honed.”
“Every candidate needs a very defined message, and your message definition is based to a large extent on who you’re trying to talk to because you want to make sure you’re talking their language. You want to make sure that when you’re in France you’re talking French,” said Arlinghaus, who said appealing to moderates would be in Huntsman’s best interest heading into the primary.
“He has a great deal of upside potential that some of the other candidates don’t because in the real estate to which he’s best suited, he has no competition; no one else is really trying to talk to that group. Which means if he does talk to them, there are a lot of votes to be had there,” Arlinghaus said. “And the New Hampshire primary is not about trying to get 51 percent, it’s about — you know, the winner’s going to get something like 32, 33 percent.”