Just two months after returning from a diplomatic post in China and settling into a new home in Washington, D.C., where does the Mormon ex-governor of Utah head to build a presidential campaign from the ground up?
Close enough to see the nightly fireworks at Disney World, of course.
For Jon Huntsman, opening his national campaign headquarters Thursday in a downtown office tower named the Citrus Center seems as much of a gamble as expecting short lines at the world’s most popular theme park.
President Obama’s ex-China envoy turned would-be opponent, who arrives here Thursday afternoon to cut the ribbon on his new campaign digs, has never attended a Republican Party of Florida convention, or any of the Lincoln Day gatherings of GOP activists held throughout the state. His only connection to Florida is through his wife, Mary Kaye, who was born and raised here.
By laying down stakes in Florida, Huntsman significantly raises expectations of his performance in the nation’s fourth-largest state, which has never before been home base to a major Republican presidential campaign.
Still, Orlando makes sense for Huntsman for several reasons, not the least of which is its sprawling airport with an abundance of non-stop, affordable flights to New Hampshire and South Carolina, which host the nation’s earliest presidential primaries.
Florida will potentially hold the fifth contest of the 2012 primary season, offering a mother lode of roughly 110 delegates that can all but lock down the nomination. The state is also fertile fundraising turf, with a long tradition of serving as an ATM for candidates from points north.
What’s more, the state GOP’s straw poll in September, only the fifth in its history, offers a political newcomer like Huntsman a chance to earn early bragging rights—though the money-intensive contest could also prove a drain on his campaign coffers. Perhaps it’s fitting that in a state known for its transience and diversity, a political nomad like Huntsman would set up shop here.
His team emphasizes that theirs is not an eggs-in-one-Florida-basket “Giuliani strategy.’’ Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani hunkered down in Florida during the 2008 presidential primary season, paying little or no attention to the states hosting earlier contests, only to waddle into third place in the Sunshine State.
“Florida is a very important part of our strategy but you have to come into the state with a head of steam,’’ said campaign spokesman Tim Miller.
Huntsman looks like he’s borrowing the unorthodox playbook Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., used to win the 2008 nomination. The battle plan: Sit out the Iowa caucus; score a surprise win in New Hampshire; make a decent showing in South Carolina—where a number of socially conservative candidates may split the evangelical vote—and seal the deal in Florida.
It’s a schedule fraught with challenges, right from the get-go in New Hampshire, which Romney practically claims as home turf. He owns a home there and was governor of neighboring Massachusetts.
“Skipping Iowa means Huntsman needs to win New Hampshire. If Romney wins it’s hard to see a path,’’ said Charlie Black, a former McCain adviser. “There are enough people still sitting on the sidelines if you get them all, but I don’t know if he can get them all.’’
His adopted home state also presents obstacles:
- He’s a virtual stranger in Florida compared to McCain, a Vietnam War hero well known from his previous White House bid and leadership on immigration and campaign finance legislation.
- Unlike the GOP primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina, which allow independents to participate, Florida’s Republican contest is open only to Republicans. That means Huntsman’s socially moderate record of supporting same-sex civil unions and immigration reform faces a more conservative jury in Florida, where voters passed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in 2008.
- While Iowa and New Hampshire Republicans have bet on underdogs like Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Pat Buchanan in 1996, Florida’s GOP voters gravitate toward familiar faces: McCain, George W. Bush, Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan.
If the trend continues, Romney’s early lead in the polls will stick.
“It’s an uphill battle for someone to come into a state like Florida, as big and diverse as it is, without significant resources and ground troops,’’ said state Sen. John Thrasher, a Romney supporter. “Not that we’re particularly focused on Huntsman, but I think it will be a very difficult run for him.’'
Yet, in one of the most unsettled Republican presidential primaries in decades, other party leaders say the state is up for grabs. “I think Romney is sort of a placeholder in Florida while people sort out what they want to do, and the momentum could move toward another candidate who catches a spark,’’ said Lew Oliver, chairman of the Orlando-area GOP. “I think most people are free agents waiting to be persuaded.’’
Expect Huntsman to play up his wife’s Florida roots at every stop to try to deflect from his carpetbagger status. One of Huntsman’s top advisers is Susie Wiles, who ran a successful campaign for governor in 2010 by another unfamiliar face in Florida, Rick Scott.
Huntsman’s Florida organizing strategy revolves around the September 22-24 event known as Presidency V. With Romney taking himself out of the straw poll, even a no-name in Florida like Huntsman has a shot. The 3,500 delegates to the Orlando event, chosen between now and the end of July, will quickly become the most sought-after voters in the state.
“The straw poll provides a built-in opportunity for retail politics that you then use to build a statewide organization for turnout in the primary,’’ said Republican consultant David Johnson, who helped run the 1995 straw poll won by Dole. “In a very expensive state to campaign in, the straw poll gives a retail flavor you don’t normally see in Florida elections.’’
Like the long-pampered voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, Florida delegates will be showered with phone calls, invitations to meet with the candidate, and other perks. Dole even offered free dance lessons, Johnson recalled.
How about a ride on the back of Huntsman’s motorcycle for an undecided Florida delegate? “That’s a great idea,’’ Johnson said. “Delegates love to be wooed.’’