We Had A Beer With Huntsman’s Campaign Manager Last Night. This Is What He Said

Jon Huntsman Campaign Party

[credit provider=”Michael Brendan Dougherty for Business Insider”]

Our politics team split up last night to spend time with the Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman campaigns in New Hampshire. The mood at the Huntsman campaign party was excited at first, with staffers smiling, “We don’t know what’s going to happen, they’d say.” Campaign spokesman Tim Miller reminded people that they booked their party room when they were polling at 7 per cent. “It’s going to be tight,” he said. And it was. 

After the results came, it felt a little like relief. Even if the best result had not come to pass–a very strong second for Huntsman and a weak first for Romney– neither did the worst.

Tim Miller and campaign manager John Weaver told us over beers roughly the same line: “Last Friday we were polling at 7 per cent, and behind Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. If you told me we’d finish third with almost 18 per cent, I’d have said you were crazy.” 

That’s correct, of course. A week ago Jon Huntsman couldn’t even get mentioned in the media. It was all about Iowa and Rick Santorum. Just eight votes! Bachmann dropping out.  

It wasn’t until Sunday, when Jon Huntsman finally fired a shot at Mitt Romney, and defended his decision to serve as Ambassador to China that Huntsman started to get some lift. He also got a campaign slogan: ‘Country First’. The campaign tried to contrast with Romney’s “politics first” approach. 

But compared to their expectations and plans from six months ago, the result was a disappointment. 

Huntsman needed one more week, perhaps. Voters we spoke to in New Hampshire said they liked him but they weren’t convinced he could win. The Santorum surge worked in Iowa because it had about two weeks to gather momentum. People felt like they could participate in the upset.

Huntsman only had two days of surging. Weaver elaborated, “Even if we had the surge from Thursday to Sunday, it would have made a huge difference. But that’s the way the cookie crumbles.” 

Some reporters at the Huntsman party were speculating that the only reason the Huntsman campaign was continuing to South Carolina was the loyalty of campaign manager John Weaver to his staffers there, many of them veterans of the successful McCain campaign. 

I cornered Weaver in the bar to ask him about it. Not surprisingly, he made me feel stupid for even asking that. “I don’t even know what that would mean,” he said, laughing “You don’t run for president because you want to make staff happy.” 

Then we talked about the future of the campaign. It was revealing.

If he [Romney] loses in South Carolina, the chessboard is reset,” Weaver said, “Our goal is to participate in a way that causes the chessboard to be reset. This is about making the race longer, so we can go man-to-man with Mitt Romney. If Ron Paul was not in this race, we would be even with him.”

That may explain why the Paul and Huntsman camps started firing at each other so much over the weekend. Both candidates want to change America’s foreign policy, both want a radically simpler tax code, and entitlement reform. And both drew huge numbers of unaffiliated voters to their cause in New Hampshire. But the Paul campaign sees Huntsman as just another friendly face on the Establishment. And the Huntsman campaign looks at the Paul campaign as a bunch of unwashed radicals.

It is obvious that the Huntsman campaign still believes Romney is weak and that his habit of saying things such as “I like being able to fire people,” could be fatal.

But all day on Tuesday, conservative talk-radio across the country was blasting Newt Gingrich for sounding like an Occupy-Wall Streeter for his criticism of Romney’s career at Bain. The Huntsman campaign is trying a different line of attack: Romney wasn’t nefarious at Bain, he’s just not electable. 

My complaint about Romney’s gaffes and business is not the philosophical things behind it, it’s the political side. If you give David Plouffe and David Axelrod [Obama’s campaign team] a billion dollars, then what are they going to do with it? That’ s my concern. It’s a practical concern.

Weaver has taken to comparing Mitt Romney to the Titanic, and he didn’t hesitate to do so with us. 

“It’s like saying this ship can’t sink. I want you to give the Republican party a ride. So we put some people in steerage, some in first class. But it’s made by the White Star Line. Go ahead and get on it,” he said shaking his head in disbelief, “There is not one issue that Romney is going to have the high ground on with Obama, not job creation. Nothing.”

The Huntsman team to a man believes that their candidate deserves it more. They have a Governor who enacted pro-life and pro-gun reforms and lowered taxes historically. His state was adding more jobs per capita than any other. They won re-election in a deep-red state with over 77 per cent of the vote. Conservative policy-wonks adore his detailed and bold policy plans. Plus he served in important diplomatic posts three times. He looks great, and has a beautiful family. He has no scandals and he regularly wins over moderates and Indpendents. Oh, and he worked his tail off for this. They’re almost offended that he isn’t winning. 

And Weaver embodies that discontent going into South Carolina. Here’s how he summed it up: “He [Huntsman] is the the most consistent conservative with the boldest vision who can actually get disaffected Democrats to vote for him, so that you have the largest mandate to enact conservative principles. It doesn’t make any sense to me that you would nominate a liberal-lite to run against Barack Obama.

It’s a longshot, but they are taking it.