Jon vs. Ron

Huntsman was the GOP’s great moderate hope. Now he can’t win liberal voters away from … Ron Paul?

Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman
Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman.

Pool photo.

NASHUA, N.H.—If you showed up on time for Ron Paul’s first New Hampshire rally since the Iowa caucuses, you had to be prepared to walk. A parking lot outside a Nashua air hangar filled up long before the event began, and helpful security guards turned cars away from the private lots nearby. Paul’s people, undeterred, parked along the winding road from downtown. By the time Paul started, there were cars with “Don’t Tread on Me” and “R3VOLUTION” and “Campaign for Liberty” stickers stretching for a mile.

Inside the hangar: Homemade signs, bed sheets with Paul slogans written on them, four miniature Ron Paul blimps and more than 600 joyful fans. Some of them had planted the Ron Paul banners hanging on overpasses throughout southern New Hampshire. They interrupt every other sentence with applause and chants.

“Two weeks ago,” says Paul, “they passed this very, very unordinary national defense authorization.”

A woman next to me, hair midway through the process of dreadlockization, yells “Traitors!”

“The rest of the country,” says Paul, “better find out what’s in that bill!”

“Wake up!” she yells.

Paul talks the crowd through foreign policy, “the whole idea of controlling the Internet,” the unjustness of holding prisoners without trials, the malaise that sets in after three years of recession. “They’re frustrated with the leadership of both parties. They never see anything change. But they know darn well I will stick to my guns and put in that office—”

He’s drowned out. The crowd has started chanting: “President Paul! President Paul! President Paul!”

By this point I’m thinking back to Jon Huntsman’s town hall in Newport, less than 24 hours earlier. It was massive, by Huntsman standards—around a third the size of Paul’s rally. Another reporter whispered to me that it looked like a cleaned-up general election rally, and it did, with spotlights and flat-screen Vizio TVs bearing the slogan “Newport for Huntsman.” And the candidate was copping Paul’s lines, especially on foreign policy.

“We’ve done what we can do, folks,” he said. “I say, I want to bring our troops home. I want to say, we don’t need to be nation-building in Asia when this nation so desperately needs our attention. We don’t have a foreign policy that’s worth anything when we’re weak at home.” Big applause. “Iraq is not our nation’s future. Afghanistan is not our nation’s future.”

Huntsman is giving New Hampshire’s anti-war, liberal voter a choice. Go with Ron Paul, and end up in a walled-off cul de sac of the GOP with no influence. Or go with Huntsman, who can win, beat Barack Obama and shut down the last 11 years of foreign policy clown shows.

The strategy isn’t working for Huntsman. Ron Paul, probably the most conservative Republican candidate to poll this high since Pat Buchanan, is choking off Huntsman’s path to liberal voters. In Iowa, where anyone could change his registration by filling out a simple card at the caucuses, Paul won 43 percent of independents, beating Romney by 24 points. He won 40 percent of “moderate or liberal voters,” beating Romney by 5. In a WMUR poll of New Hampshire voters [PDF] released on Friday, Paul was winning the allegiance of “undeclared” voters over Romney, 37 to 32, and winning former Democrats—if they switched their registrations recently, they can vote here—by 1 point. Huntsman was lagging in the teens.

How, if you’re on Team Huntsman, is this fair? How can the absent-minded editor of the Ron Paul Survival Report be winning independents and liberals? Welcome to Operation Conservatize Ron Paul. Since Dec. 29, the Huntsman campaign has been putting out Web videos (not TV ads) clipping together glue-huffing conspiracy talk from the old Paul letters with footage of Paul dithering about their origins. On Jan. 4, Huntsman appeared right after Paul on Piers Morgan Tonight and milked a silly story about a Paul campaign tweet that mocked Huntsman’s poor showing in Iowa. “You think he would have learned the perils of ghost-written subject matter by now,” Huntsman said.

Attacking Paul for his own bad decisions hasn’t made a dent. Huntsman has evolved to Phase II: attacking Paul for stuff that may or may not be sort of inspired by him, possibly. The Huntsman campaign has spent two days demanding contrition from Paul because a suspiciously new YouTube member named “NHLiberty4Paul” published a video—the account’s only video—portraying the former ambassador to China as a shadowy double agent who can’t stop adopting non-white babies. There’s no hard evidence connecting the video to Paul, but the Huntsman campaign goaded Paul into denouncing it, inspiring headlines like “Huntsman blasts Paul backer’s ad calling him ‘Manchurian candidate.’ ”

Team Huntsman needs liberals to hear this stuff and turn away from the nice old doctor with the anti-war views. “Paul likes to play the crazy uncle who doesn’t know how this stuff comes,” explained Huntsman campaign strategist John Weaver in an interview before the Newport town hall. “I think people are figuring it out.”

The Paul campaign sees this as desperation, a winded boxer swinging in the 15th round with puffed-up eyelids and rubbery knees. The newsletter story is on hold; it burbled up again over the slow holidays, but Paul’s narrow defeat in Iowa seems to have dulled some of his scrutiny. Paul’s been polling second in New Hampshire for weeks, and as long as that’s true, voters may feel it makes more sense to register an anti-war vote with him than with Huntsman. In fact Paul’s supporters, die-hards and recent converts, are almost insulted when you ask whom else they like. Ken Akiyama, who came to the rally wearing a “Veterans for Ron Paul” shirt and camo pants, discovered Paul on a combative O’Reilly Factor interview. His candidate had nothing in common with Huntsman.

“I stopped looking at Huntsman when he said we’d show other nations what it meant to be a friend of America,” he said. “That’s arrogant and revealing.”

Other Paul voters ran down the weaknesses in the Huntsman pitch. He hadn’t ruled out war with Iran. He didn’t talk about sound money. He pandered, and Paul didn’t. I talked to Teshia O’Keefe as she and her friend Kristin rolled up a 4x12 homemade Paul sign. She, too, only discovered Paul after 2008. Her big issues were the National Defense Authorization Act and the wars. Why would she ever back Huntsman?

“I’m pretty sure he worked for the Federal Reserve,” she said. “He was a weak governor, from what I’ve heard, and he’s a dark person—we don’t know much about him except that he worked for Obama.”

Left unsaid: Paul’s people don’t need to know much about him. Liberals have been told all year, most memorably by Jon Stewart, that Paul’s the outsider candidate the GOP hates. They’ve got a chance to get him delegates in New Hampshire. They’re supposed to give that up for Jon Huntsman?