What’s Huntsman’s Game Plan?

With Daniels out, Pawlenty in, Romney trudging along, and the Gingrich campaign on deathwatch, the news last weekend was all Jon Huntsman who, despite real doubts from real live politicos, captured lots of media attention during his debut five-day tour of New Hampshire.

Watching the weekend coverage, here’s a roundup of what we learned about the two-time Utah governor and Obama-appointed ambassador to China and his approach to the 2012 primaries:

1. He will not allow Utah to define him. His major executive experience is as a popular (and quite moderate) governor of a deeply red state, but Huntsman campaign headquarters will be in Orlando, Florida.

2. Moreover, he will not allow his Mormonism to define him. In his ABC interview with George Stephanopoulos, Hunstman vastly improved his previously dodgy answer to the question of his religious affiliation, declaring that he believed in God, that he considered himself a “good Christian,” and that he was “very proud” of his “Mormon heritage.” He also reminded the world that Mormonism today is a “diverse” faith tradition and, intriguingly, that he “adds to that diversity,” which is probably code for a less-than-orthodox approach to the faith. Huntsman is helped also by the fact that whereas Mormonism may be the most intriguing thing about candidate Romney, candidate Huntsman plays rock-and-roll and rides motorcycles.

3. He needs to show well in New Hampshire, but it’s South Carolina he is banking on. His campaign team is already heavy with recycled McCain personnel, and he’s quickly addding more South Carolina cred. South Carolina is also an open primary where he can draw in the independents he needs to win.

4. He’s betting this Tea Party thing will wear itself out by 2012.

5. He’d like you to think of him as stately like George Herbert Walker Bush but way cooler. In his ABC interview with George Stephanopolous, Huntsman drew comparisons between his own “proud tradition” of thank you notes and that of Bush 41; today, he’s off to Kennebunkport, Maine, to kiss the ring of Bush the elder.

6. He’d also like you to think of him as earnest (in a clean-cut Mormon way) like Mitt Romney but also way cooler. Hunstman will cope with low national name recognition (about 25%, according to a Gallup poll) by drafting off Mitt Romney (who has about 83% national name recognition), then drawing sharp contrasts at opportune moments.

7. He’s not afraid to poke fun at Romney to sharpen those contrasts. And there’s no love lost between Huntsman and Romney, who are distant cousins.

8. And yet, there are undeniable similarities between the Huntsman and Romney, including the fact that both as governors launched health care plans they later disavowed. Does his early hemming and hawing about his own religion indicate a tendency to spin and squirm, or—even worse—flip and flop?

It’s way too early to even assess the likelihood of his success. Even Huntsman himself seems to be a bit uncertain, visibly flinching during some moments in the spotlight and comparing political fortunes to catching “lightning in a bottle.” His campaign rides on convincing aspirational moderates and younger voters to hitch their wagons to his telegenic, pro-business, civil-union supporting star. Very Disney. Very Orlando.

Trouble is that Republican conduct over the last two years provides very little evidence of GOP capacity for nimble redirection or self-redefinition.

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