The challenge is how a candidate overcomes such weaknesses. Those who adapt and grow tend to do well. But all signs suggest that Huntsman has not only failed to highlight his conservative bona fides, he is doubling down on his vulnerabilities.
The biggest problem with Huntsman's campaign isn't his centrist ideology; it's his campaign's tactics. Huntsman has decided to ignore the fundamental rule of politics--a campaign is about contrasting your record against those of your opponents. Instead of taking on President Obama, he's praised Obama's good intentions and avoided outlining many areas of disagreement. He's run to the left of the president on Afghanistan, calling for faster and deeper troop withdrawals. And at a time when voters are hungry for solutions, he offered a platitude-filled kickoff speech that barely touched on the economic problems that Americans want solved.
This is a Republican Party that wants head-on confrontation with Obama, but Huntsman is selling détente and civility. It's an electorate that wants a candidate who identifies with the struggles that Americans are dealing with. Instead, his introductory campaign video focused on his love of motocross--an image of recreation at a time when the country is facing major economic pain. Huntsman is also courting independents in the New Hampshire primary, whom he assumes are in the mold of Michael Bloomberg but are as disaffected as any group out there. (In the latest July Granite State poll, 61 percent of independents said the nation was headed in the wrong direction, with a 47 percent plurality disapproving of Obama.)
Huntsman has a good story to tell. He governed Utah at a time of economic prosperity, lowered taxes, and opposed abortion rights. He was one of the first presidential candidates to come out squarely for Paul Ryan's entitlement reforms--which have become close to conservative orthodoxy these days. His apostasy is hardly more egregious than that of George W. Bush, who championed comprehensive immigration reform, downplayed social issues, and acknowledged climate change. Like Huntsman, Bush even expressed his distaste for "nation building" in the 2000 presidential race, though he clearly shifted his views after the 9/11 attacks.
But unlike Bush, Huntsman is making little attempt to sell his conservative views to voters. Instead, he's offering a milquetoast message, believing that Republican voters prefer conciliation over confrontation. Bush ran his 2000 campaign on the theme of "compassionate conservatism;" there's no sign Huntsman is campaigning on anything conservative.
The results so far leave a lot to be desired. Despite focusing much of his campaign in New Hampshire, he's bringing up the rear in that state's polling, garnering just 3 percent of the respondents in the Granite State poll. Any buzz he received has been overshadowed by Michele Bachmann's momentum and the potential candidacy of Rick Perry.