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Huntsman faces long road in GOP presidential primary

With cellar-dwelling poll numbers and a campaign shake-up to boot, Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman's campaign trumpeted Wednesday's endorsement of Jeb Bush Jr. as a "major announcement."

Chances are the endorsement of Bush Jr., along with Republican political strategist Ana Navarro, won't do much — in part because endorsements seldom make much of a difference.

That's especially true in the case of Huntsman, who has weathered a staff shakeup that leaves the campaign with more negative press clips than momentum, say political observers and consultants.

"Jon Huntsman has a LONG way to go to win in FL nevertheless nationwide," Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster who worked on Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign and Gov. Rick Scott's campaign as well, said in an e-mail.

"His campaign apparatus appears ready to implode and his strategy is eerily reminiscent of Giuliani's from 2008 — and we all know how well that worked out for Rudy. The polling data shows Huntsman stuck in the national and state-specific polling. That means endorsements aren't likely to change Huntsman's trajectory, only a radical campaign makeover will."

One source of tension in Huntsman's campaign is consultant John Weaver, who placed many of the Huntsman staff in place and calls most of the shots behind the scenes. Those whom he didn't hire he would scream and curse at, according to published reports in POLITICO and the Daily Caller as they chronicled the departure of three staffers and the trail of hard feelings in Weaver's wake.

Weaver, who did not return calls or e-mails for comment, has had a history of bailing on floundering campaigns or being forced out amid money troubles. Last year, Weaver left the side of independent candidate for Massachusetts governor, Tim Cahill, who accused Weaver of leaking inside information about the campaign. Prior to that, Weaver left the campaign of Republican Long Island congressional candidate Chris Cox. However, Weaver did help Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder win his primary.

In 2008, Weaver had a falling out in John McCain's presidential campaign when Cindy McCain grew displeased over the campaign's finances, according to GQ magazine. Veteran Republican operative Roger Stone said Weaver left Phil Gramm's 1996 presidential campaign when that candidate's wife, Wendy, raised a stink about money.

Friends of Huntsman say he won't jettison Weaver, whom he stands by, because he thinks the consultant is key to winning in New Hampshire. One former McCain staffer said it sounds like Huntsman is under the same spell as the Arizona senator once was when it came to Weaver, who stokes inter-office rivalries and a climate of fear.

"He brainwashes people. He convinces them they can't win without him. But they can," the staffer said.

If former staffers and colleagues are to be believed, Weaver's tough style starkly contrasts with the nice-guy image of Huntsman, who began the campaign with a call for more "civility." He was roundly mocked and criticized by that, including by Republicans.

Shortly after announcing his campaign, Huntsman's campaign actually lost support, according to a Gallup poll in late June. Huntsman's campaign rollout was botched — even his first name was misspelled on some campaign gear — but Gallup doesn't say why his support diminished. An earlier Gallup poll, though, found that nearly a fifth of Republicans say they would not favor a presidential candidate who's a Mormon, the religion of the former Utah governor.

Last month, another survey from Gallup found that "55 percent of Republicans who recognize Huntsman have an overall favorable opinion, among the lowest of any Republican Gallup tracks, while 21 percent have an unfavorable opinion. That one in four Republicans who recognize Huntsman say they don't have an opinion about him either way underscores his overall weak image."

Nationwide polls often mirror those in Florida, and the most recent Quinnipiac University poll showed Huntsman wasn't doing so well here last week when it reported he garnered 1 percent of the vote among Republicans.

The number was particularly striking in a state where Huntsman has decided to post his national headquarters, in Orlando, yet his campaign footprint has been small in the Sunshine State. Huntsman had planned to start wooing Republican insiders in advance of a September Republican Party of Florida straw poll, but so far former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has found greater success courting Florida's election leaders, leaving Huntsman with endorsements like Jeb Bush Jr., who has never held elected office.

Huntsman faces long road in GOP presidential primary 08/10/11 [Last modified: Thursday, August 11, 2011 10:10am]
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