Selling John Huntsman, the Un-Republican

The former governor's presidential announcement was preceded by an elaborate marketing campaign

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The transformation of Jon Huntsman from improbable presidential hopeful to a formidable contender for the Republican nomination in under eight weeks is something of a marketing miracle.

Before President Obama's former ambassador to China returned to Washington on April 29, the prospect of the socially moderate Mormon parachuting into the race, stumping among Republican primary voters, and waging an aggressive campaign against his former boss seemed far-fetched.

(RELATED: Huntsman In, With a Twist )

But a campaign-in-waiting was already in place, with veteran political advisers and a well-timed speaking engagement just one week later in South Carolina, which hosts one of the earliest primaries. The time was ripe; many Republican voters were unsatisfied with the current choices, led nominally by Mitt Romney. Skipping nationally televised debates on May 5 and June 13 allowed Huntsman to start building his not-your-father's-Republican brand before rivals tried to define the career politician as anything less than new and exciting.

Three back-to-back trips to New Hampshire proved Huntsman was ready to hit the campaign trail and generated reams of mostly positive publicity. Short videos of a mysterious motocross rider in the rugged Utah mountains highlighted Huntsman's offbeat passion and served as trailers to Tuesday's official campaign launch, which begins in New Jersey and will take him to five more states in four days.

"We're less than 24 hours away from a different kind of candidate for president, someone who doesn't look or sound like everyone else,'' says the introduction to the last of the three videos.
 

Tomorrow from Jon Huntsman Jr. on Vimeo.

More than four decades after Joe McGinnis exposed the Madison Avenue side of campaigns in The Selling of the President 1968, the packaging of Jon Huntsman could be a new success story in product placement. (That is, unless he crumbles like the equally buzzworthy, late-arriving candidate in the 2008 GOP primaries, Fred Thompson.) "He's trying position himself as the un-Cola,'' said Gerald Patnode, a marketing professor at York College in Pennsylvania, recalling the old 7-Up ad. "The rub against Romney is that he has no personality and that he's too stiff, and Huntsman is trying to play off that and show that he's just not another flavor.... It's no different than marketing soft drinks or soap.''

The hype may reveal more about the most unsettled Republican field in decades than it does about Huntsman. Only Romney is making a full-court press for the Republican mainstream, leaving a fractured competition for social conservatives and tea party activists. When Tim Pawlenty balked at confronting Romney on his health care record in last week's televised debate, he unintentionally opened the door for Huntsman - or maybe Texas Gov. Rick Perry, should he decide to run - to rise as a leading alternative to Romney.

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Beth Reinhard is a political correspondent for National Journal.

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