Josh Akman, Columnist
Jon Huntsman did not participate in the CNN Debate in Las Vegas on Tuesday night. Short of his family and small (and getting smaller) campaign staff, no one really noticed. In a bizarre and counterproductive effort toimpress New Hampshire voters Huntsman skipped the debate to protest Nevada moving its caucus ahead of New Hampshire’s, which has always been the nation’s first primary. It’s bizarre because no one else skipped the debate. It’s counterproductive because right now, Jon Huntsman is polling 6% in New Hampshire. 94% of the Republican primary voters in New Hampshire think someone else would be a better President. To change their minds and prove that he’s the best candidate, Huntsman decided to skip an opportunity to debate his opponents. Still, unless you were on the lookout for awkward jokes or obscure cultural references, you probably didn’t miss Huntsman at the debate. And that’s why his presidential campaign has been such a letdown.
The Jon Huntsman 2012 Presidential campaign was never going to be conventional. As President Obama’s Ambassador to China, Huntsman knew it would be an interesting sell. To win, he’d have to convince the far-right Republican primary electorate that he was conservative enough, even though he worked for Obama, and he’d have to convince the general electorate that he was the stronger candidate then President Obama, his former boss. For this reason, his path to victory was never quite clear. And after formally announcing, his chances only worsened. One botched roll out, a campaign shakeup, and a Hail-Mary strategy later, the Huntsman campaign is almost out of money and nearly out of time. The reason is clear; he never explained why he was running in the first place.
In this ever increasing sound bite political climate, candidates (deservingly or not) get put into buckets. The good ones take advantage of it: Romney is the jobs candidate, Cain is the outsider candidate, and Obama was the change candidate. The bad ones get trapped in it: Bachmann is crazy, Pawlenty was boring, and McCain was out of touch. For better or for worse, this is the narrative; it’s up to the campaigns to embrace it or to change it. This raises the fundamental question about Jon Huntsman’s campaign; who is he? On which topic is he running on? He seems completely unable to articulate his message, and when he does seem to change the electoral momentum, he is completely unable to capitalize.
Competing in a primary during the Arab Spring, the European debt crisis, and an increasingly competitive China, how did Huntsman not run on foreign policy? He was the Ambassador to Singapore, Deputy Trade Representative, and Ambassador to China. He is fluent in Mandarin, while Rick Perry is barely fluent in English. In a race filled with foreign policy lightweights (Romney) and foreign policy lighter weights (Cain), the fact that Huntsman has not made the race about his one overwhelming strength is mystifying.
He also seemed to be flirting with above-the-fray elder statesman candidate. His campaign had its best news day when he went on Twitter to criticize his opponentswhoquestion global warming. It was a brilliant tactical move; he seemed reasonable and funny, and they seemed ridiculous and outside the mainstream. Then he went practically went dark, and has failed to capture that sort of excitement since. It’s no secret that Huntsman finds himself to the left of his fellow candidates; on issues such as immigration, gay marriage, and defense, Huntsman is admittedly moderate. In a campaign season with seemingly countless debates, Huntsman has barely mentioned his decidedly moderate views. Certainly there’s some political risk there as being pro civil union isn’t exactly a winner in Iowa or South Carolina. But what’s the purpose of a debate if not for the candidate to distinguish himself?
See, Huntsman had to know that his candidacy was a long shot. He was running from the left of a party that is moving forcefully to the right. Why didn’t do he do a better job of fighting for the center? Better yet, why didn’t he do a better job of fighting at all? Huntsman was absent in body from the Las Vegas debate on Saturday. But he’s been absent in message for the entire race, and that’s why he’s going to lose.