There’s a big long story in Politico this morning about a “blistering internal feud” in Jon Huntsman’s GOP presidential campaign. A man named David Fischer, who has known Huntsman since the 1980s, is the principal source of the story. Mr. Fischer’s days as a political operative are now over. No one in their right mind would ever hire him again. Mr. Fischer finds fault with Amb. Huntsman’s lead political consultant, John Weaver, on just about every level. A campaign “source,” is quoted as saying: “He is a micromanager, he is controlling, he is abusive, he treats people very poorly, and he manages by intimidation and fear.“
Mr. Fischer alleges that Huntsman would fire Mr. Weaver except that he thinks that in so doing, he will crater his presidential campaign. Mr. Weaver famously managed John McCain’s upset victory over George W. Bush in the 2000 GOP New Hampshire primary. Huntsman’s entire campaign strategy hinges on his defeating Mitt Romney in New Hampshire in 2012. If he fires Weaver, according to Fischer, Huntsman fears that his New Hampshire campaign will collapse.
All of this (and more) is very damaging to Huntsman. It makes him look weak. It makes him look like a tool of a political consultant. It makes him look stupid. It makes him look like someone who isn’t ready for prime time presidential politics.
The fact is that a successful campaign strategy for a long-shot presidential hopeful like Jon Huntsman has to work backward from a fixed point. In the case of the Huntsman campaign, they have done a fairly good job of “framing” his candidacy as a head-to-head contest with Mitt Romney to be the winner of the “grown-up” Republican primary.
They have chosen New Hampshire as their fixed point; the battleground for the fight. This is shrewd, since it is Romney’s strongest early state. It’s also shrewd because as much as 50% of the primary electorate in New Hampshire in 2012 might be comprised of independent voters (including Democratic-leaning independents, who presumably won’t bother to vote in the New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary, since President Obama is running essentially unopposed). And it’s also shrewd because New Hampshire has a history of taking a shine to long-shot candidacies and propelling them forward onto the national stage.
As it happens, Mr. Weaver knows the state very, very well from his previous work on behalf of Senator McCain. And he has designed the strategy for Huntsman to leverage that knowledge to maximum effect.
Working backward from the New Hampshire primary, Weaver has crafted a strategy that keeps much of Huntsman’s powder dry until Republicans and Independents in the state start paying more careful attention to the primary campaign. In the interim, he has set out to build political infrastructure in states like Florida and South Carolina that follow the New Hampshire primary on the voting calendar.
At some point in the fall, Huntsman will essentially move to New Hampshire and campaign there on an almost daily basis. He will ignore all of the other candidates and focus his attacks on Romney. It is the view of the Huntsman team that Romney has a political glass jaw — authenticity — and that if properly struck, Romney’s campaign will collapse on the mat in a heap. Should that happen, Huntsman will emerge from New Hampshire as the establishment candidate, who knocked out the “champ,” and in so doing surge into position as the most “electable” GOP presidential candidate. The final calculation is that GOP primary voters will nominate the most electable conservative in the field. They are laser-focused on defeating Barack Obama. Anyone who can get that job done (and is conservative enough) will be just fine with them.
As campaign strategies go, especially for a long-shot like Huntsman, that’s about as good as you can do. Mr. Weaver may be all of the things that the “source” says he is. But he has the right strategy and he knows the terrain. Which is why Mr. Fischer is finished and Weaver keeps on keeping on.
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