Thursday, July 14, 2011

Jon Huntsman Attacks Mitt Romney

The Jon Huntsman campaign has begun seriously criticizing its chief rival in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney. According to a CNN report, Huntsman has been making a number of attacks against Romney's economic record, especially as pertains to jobs. He hasn't shied away from tough rhetoric: A Huntsman spokesman said that Romney's job creation record is "abysmal by every standard."

Remarks like that from campaign spokesmen do not mean as much as something from the candidate himself. Typically, a spokesman is more willing to make a harsh criticism because the candidate himself can disavow it if it misfires. Campaign staffers may also disagree as to the intensity of attacks the campaign should be making--recall, for instance, the apparent turmoil in the Tim Pawlenty campaign about whether he should "go negative."

But Huntsman has been willing to shed a little of his diplomatic aura by attacking Romney himself, especially when prompted to do so by reporters. When asked whether he agreed with his spokesman's statement, Huntsman responded: "Forty-seventh is forty-seventh; first is first...Let the facts speak for themselves." It's not as intensely negative as Pawlenty's attacks against Bachmann, but tougher than anything we had seen from Huntsman before.

Elephant Watcher has observed that Huntsman may have mixed motives for running for president. Huntsman may be planning a run in 2016, or perhaps jockeying for a Secretary of State appointment. Huntsman's attacks against Romney are only consistent with a serious effort at winning the presidency this time around. Perhaps even more noteworthy is the fact that Huntsman focused on the economy--jobs, no less--which is obviously tailored for the current political environment. It will be interesting to see whether he returns to talking about his foreign policy experience, which would be more relevant for a Secretary of State position (or even a 2016 presidential run).

The true test will be at the next major primary debate, scheduled for mid-August. It will be the first debate attended by Huntsman, and he may even be asked about his criticisms of Romney. As we saw with Pawlenty at the previous debate, a candidate may back down in person if he's not fully committed to an offensive strategy. It doesn't make much sense to "go negative" early, but for Huntsman, New Hampshire is everything. Romney is really his only competitor there. If there were many candidates who could gain from Romney's downfall, Huntsman would be wise to sit back and build himself up, but an offensive strategy makes sense in New Hampshire.

What could account for this sudden change in Huntsman? Perhaps it is Michele Bachmann's rise in the polls, which has as much to do with Romney's vulnerability as it does with anything attractive about Bachmann. Huntsman may see Romney as less than invincible.