WASHINGTON--A crowd of eager college students huddled outside an auditorium at The George Washington University on Tuesday, pleading with a skinny kid wearing a headset to let them inside.
"There's no more room," the kid insisted. "I can't let you in."
Some in the crowd begged--one even asked me if he could pretend to be my journalism intern--but the head-geared door monitor held the line. Most of the students retreated to a flat-screen monitor in the center of the lobby.
Inside the auditorium, about 250 students sat quietly, waiting to hear Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor and ambassador to China, deliver his stump speech. The seats were filled by mostly College Republicans, Chinese exchange students eager to meet the former ambassador and a few liberals who just wanted to check out a Republican presidential candidate--the one, no doubt, that they liked the most.
If there's a location where Huntsman should feel the most comfortable, it's on a college campus. Since he announced his candidacy in June, Huntsman has cultivated a small but energized base of pragmatist college students through his "Generation H" initiative, which draws mostly 20-somethings attracted to his centrist, thoughtful approach. His three daughters, who sat in the front row, posted pictures of the speech on their shared Twitter page.
Huntsman's speeches aren't fiery, and his talk at GWU was no exception. He spoke of compromise and working with Democrats in order to "get things done."
"I hate the divide in this country because being divided as Americans is not natural. It's un-American," Huntsman said. "It's not consistent with who we are as blue-sky optimists. We're problem-solving people."
This has been Huntsman's pitch all along: He's the guy who can "do things," even if it means working with, (or, in his case as Obama's ambassador to China, for) liberals.
But the pitch isn't selling.
It's not for a lack of conservative ideas. Huntsman's loophole-slashing tax reform plan, which would create three income tax brackets of 8 percent, 14 percent and 23 percent, received glowing reviews from the Wall Street Journal editorial board and FreedomWorks, a Washington, D.C.-based tea party group.
But his tax plan hasn't been enough to get Huntsman out of the basement tier of long-shot 2012 candidates, and Huntsman knows it.
"There are some Republicans who look at me and they say, That Huntsman guy, no way, no how would I ever vote for him," he said to the GW crowd. "He worked for a Democrat."
A few days before, however, at a teahouse near his home in Washington, Huntsman told me that the swell of tea party-fueled, my-way-or-the-highway politics was just a passing phase. Gridlock will get so bad, he predicted, that Americans will force the stubborn ideological hold-outs in Congress to stand down and compromise. When that happens, he'll be ready.
"Inevitably, people will insist that the work of the country gets done," Huntsman said in his interview with Yahoo News. "You've got to have candidates who will run and say, I'm going to get the work of the country done, I'm not going to sell out for right or left."
"People are going to say, Hallelujah! We've been waiting for this moment to finally get people in there who can deal with debt, with tax reform, energy independence, our wars abroad," he said. "We can only go on like this for long."
He pointed to the summer debate over the debt ceiling, a process that eventually culminated in an 11th hour deal, but only after months of negotiations, threats of default and countless Capitol Hill media stunts. A few days later, Standard & Poor's downgraded the nation's credit rating anyway.
"If that wasn't an embarrassment, I don't know what is," Huntsman said. "You had a whole class of my party saying, basically, Go ahead and default. Default?! ...We should have had the 'doer class' who stood up at that point and be willing to say, No, we're not going to let nonsense stand in the way of getting to work.'"
That's the role Huntsman wants to play, but at this point, Republican voters aren't trying to cast that part. In New Hampshire, where Huntsman moved his campaign headquarters a few weeks ago and where he spends most of his time, he's polling at less than 5 percent.
New Hampshire residents aren't even donating to his campaign. In the last quarter, Huntsman's campaign reported just two donors in the entire state who gave a combined $1,000.
Gary Johnson, the little-known libertarian former governor of New Mexico, raised 10 times that amount in the state.
When I asked what gives--he has held more than 80 events throughout the state--Huntsman gave a surprising answer. He said he was shocked at the $1,000 in donations ... because it was so high.
"I was surprised by it because we haven't had a single fund-raiser in New Hampshire," he said. "We haven't had a financial focus on New Hampshire. It hasn't been a center for fundraising for us. It's been a primary process that we take extremely seriously. One that we have developed a strategy around. Fundraising happens elsewhere. So if we were to do a fundraiser in New Hampshire we'd pull in more, no doubt about that."
"So fund-raising numbers in New Hampshire shouldn't be looked to as a metric for support?" I asked.
"Absolutely not," he said.
OK, but what about the low poll numbers? Mitt Romney, who just nabbed a plum endorsement from former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, is killing it in the state at 40 percent.
"We were at zero not long ago," Huntsman said. "And we went from zero to 10 in a recent poll. And then eight in the most recent WMUR poll, twice now. And you're going to see that bump up to 12, 15, 20, it's no doubt. With a little air cover--advertisements on the air which we'll inevitably have, we'll be up to where we're being taken very seriously." He went on to say, "What you're seeing is the beginning of the rise. When you rise in New Hampshire, you rise very quickly."
When discussing Romney, who is actually his distant cousin, Huntsman tagged him with the usual criticism: He's a pandering flip-flopper.
"People want to know what they're going to get. They want authenticity. They want someone who is going to stick to their core beliefs," Huntsman said. "I think the numbers would suggest that he lacks authenticity. When you appear once as a liberal running for the Senate and then you appear as a moderate running for governor and then you appear as a conservative running for president, people question where those differing beliefs and the changing attitudes come from. Is it political pandering or a string of epiphanies, which to most minds would be highly unlikely."
By then, our tea cups were getting cold. One of Huntsman's campaign aides started to give the signal that it was time to move on for his next appointment.
Before he left, there was an important question on a matter of vital national importance that I had to get in.
"What product do you use for your hair?" I asked.
"I've been wondering this as well!" one of his aides blurted before he could respond.
"I wish I could tell you," Huntsman said, explaining that his wife buys all the hair products from the local Aveda Institute, and that he obediently follows her instructions. "She has these little squirt bottles."
"But no dye," he added. "And not much in the way of artificiality."
More popular Yahoo! News stories:
- Jon Huntsman
- George Washington University