Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman announced for president this morning, which may well mean it’s downhill from here.

That’s right, national Huntsmania may never get more intense than it is right now, so let’s all savor this political apex. I suspect it will be fleeting.

Huntsman is a Republican who served as U.S. ambassador to China before he quit in April to organize his campaign. This angered the Obama administration (who wanted him to stay put), as well as some influential conservative pundits (who wanted him to stay out of the race).

Many first learned about Huntsman after he finished second to Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) in the straw poll taken at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans last week. Huntsman’s strong showing was, prima facie, a surprise since he didn’t even speak at the event. Huntsman and Paul’s combined vote total (994) in the poll far exceeded the combined votes (548) of the other ten candidates.
What accounted for Huntsman’s sudden mass appeal? Was it his remarkably progressive policy positions, which include support for civil unions, Obama’s stimulus, “cap and trade” to manage global climate change and “amnesty” for undocumented workers? Notwithstanding huge electoral gains last year after their party tacked hard right, has the GOP suddenly embraced its decrepit “moderate” wing, in a guileful effort to re-take the White House?

Not at all. As Politico reports, Huntsman owes his second-place “victory” in the poll to supporters who simply “gamed the system.” Local Republicans like Orleans Parish School Board member Brett Bonin, former New Orleans City Councilmember Bryan Wagner and former New Orleans congressman Joseph Cao say they “talked up Huntsman to their friends” prior to the conference. But the Huntsman campaign to corral straw-poll votes didn’t end with friendly suggestions.

On Wednesday Bonin sent out a mass email telling “anyone interested,” regardless of “party affiliation,” to contact him for free tickets to the RLC. Bonin’s group met in Lakeview on Saturday and was bused to the conference to meet “insiders” and vote in the straw poll. They then returned to Lakeview for “refreshments.”

Politico’s Jonathan Martin published Bonin’s email and wrote, “Free bus, free tickets, free food. You get the picture.” Yes, I’d seen the same picture while talking to Ron Paul volunteers at the RLC. They were brimming with confidence about winning the straw poll. Apparently, if you hand out enough free tickets to a political conference (chock-full of speeches about the importance of “principle”) and throw in a complimentary refreshment and a free bus ride, you can effectively stuff the RLC ballot.

Scott McKay at The Hayride did some rough calculations about what it cost Paul and Huntsman to bus in “supporters” on Friday:

Delegate badges for the event went for $199 apiece. Which would indicate that busing in 612 supporters would have cost the Paul campaign $120,000… Huntsman would have had to spend some $76,000 on badges for his people.

That’s $200,000 or so in revenues for the event’s organizers. Which is a pretty good chunk of change.

Indeed it is, but the Paul and Huntsman campaigns view such expenditures as an investment. With first place, Paul got his media headlines, while Huntsman grabs the coveted “did surprisingly well” storyline, just ahead of today’s official announcement that he’s running.

So, with the help of some local Republican politicos, Huntsman has bought some temporary momentum. The question is how he will leverage it?

His strategy centers on Florida, as did Rudy Giuliani’s failed bid for president in 2008. Huntsman has placed his campaign headquarters in Orlando, and I’m sure he’ll boost his name recognition there over the summer as he invests in doing “surprisingly well” in Florida’s Presidency 5 straw poll in September. Then comes retail campaigning in New Hampshire, pressing his foreign policy advantage in debates, and hoping that Republican moderates view him as a compelling alternative to Mitt Romney, the current frontrunner. Maybe if the media swoon enough for Huntsman, the stars align and  he peaks at the right time, he can do well in New Hampshire, win Florida and Nevada, and carry the momentum into Super Tuesday. Then, like Obama in 2008, he can try to ride a unique coalition of moderates and independents all the way to the nomination.

Huntsman’s big bet on Florida may be shrewder than Giuliani’s, though, because his moderate views may actually be an asset there. The key for Huntsman is to stay clear of Governor Rick Scott, the Tea Party darling whom Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal campaigned for last year and who is already despised by most of the electorate. Speaking of our Bobby, I think it’s worth noting that Jindal advised Republicans to not make ad hominem attacks against Obama, a policy which  apparently has been embraced by Huntsman, if not by many of his rivals.

A few weeks ago I predicted that Jindal would end up endorsing Newt Gingrich for president, right before Newt’s campaign’s staff jumped ship. (That happened to McCain in 2007 as well, and he recovered.) I’m going to hold off on making more predictions right now, but I do think there are intriguing similarities between Huntsman and Jindal’s “nice guy” approaches.

That’s the problem, considering the political dynamics bound to develop in  the coming months. As soon as Huntsman gets a whiff of momentum, his opponents will fire at him hard and knock him off script.  He may want to talk about his expertise on improving relations with China, but as soon as he becomes a threat, Romney will see to it that Huntsman is endlessly defending his stance that Obama’s stimulus package “probably wasn’t big enough.” Huntsman may want to charm voters with aspirational rhetoric, but how will he respond in a debate when Bachmann assails him for being an enemy of traditional marriage? Does he have the political skill and toughness to make winning counterpunches from the left against his far more conservative rivals? I seriously doubt it.

Obama’s team has said they are worried about a Huntsman candidacy, but I think that’s talk from the briar patch. Obama supporters should pray for a Huntsman nomination, because that would virtually guarantee a third-party candidate. It’s unthinkable that the tea party coalitions, in the first presidential election after their ascendance, would simply hold their noses and vote for a GOP moderate. No way.

My friend Joe argued with me on behalf of Huntsman’s prospects last month, observing that “Huntsman is a smart disciplined guy in his prime. Is that true of any of the other GOP candidates?”

Well, not until Texas Governor Rick Perry enters the race (and you can bank on that). But, even without a Perry candidacy, Huntsman will need to sell his policy record to an electorate whose most motivated faction is ultra-conservative. There’s no doubt that surprising storylines will develop as the primaries approach. And it will be interesting to see who Louisiana’s Republicans opt to support. (Recall that Sen. David Vitter was Rudy Giuliani’s regional chairman in 2007 before both their political careers took unexpected turns.) It’s unimaginable in these politically volatile times that a candidate like Romney could sustain momentum throughout the entire primary process with no serious challenges. A frontrunner will emerge, and he or she will be seriously challenged, if not upset. There’s political theater to play out. It’s inevitable, but I don’t see how Huntsman becomes a prime player in the drama to come.

Mark Moseley

Mark Moseley blogs at Your Right Hand Thief. Until mid 2014, Mark Moseley was The Lens' opinion writer, engagement specialist and coordinator for the Charter Schools Reporting Corps. After Katrina and...