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Esquire - Romney Doesn't Scare Obama. This Guy Does.

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By Chris Jones

Today is the last day. Today is the last day Jon Huntsman Jr. could do anything else in the world. Today is the last day he could return to the family business (he's served as an executive at the multibillion-dollar Huntsman Corporation started by his father) or decide instead to run for a smaller office (he was twice elected governor of Utah) or teach international relations at Penn (he was most recently the U.S. ambassador to China) or camp himself on the couch and grow old with his wife, Mary Kaye, and their seven children. These are the last few minutes for him to change his mind. He could still leave this restaurant in a posh Boston hotel, where he sits tucked away at a table overlooking the harbor, eating lunch with an influential Republican donor, and board any one of a thousand different planes. Or he could get up from his table, climb into the SUV that's idling outside, and drive up to the seven-seat charter that's already waiting for him at Logan Airport, for a flight scheduled to arrive later this afternoon in Lebanon, New Hampshire. If he doesn't change his mind in these next few minutes, he might still begin his campaign to become the next president of the United States at Jesse's Steaks, Seafood, and Tavern somewhere between tiny Lebanon and tiny Hanover, by taking a breath, walking across the parking lot and past the salad bar, and asking for the first of a hundred million votes.

Or he could do anything else in the world.

Huntsman finishes his lunch, shakes hands with the smiling donor, and makes his way to the lobby. He's built like a long-distance runner. He's wearing a dark suit, a white shirt, a blue tie. His graying hair is neatly parted. He looks rich, which he is. Although he could run on family money, he's learned from the likes of Meg Whitman that self-financing campaigns are losing campaigns. If you can't lure donors, you can't lure voters. So he's feeling pretty good about his lunch. Lanny Wiles, the veteran advance man -- he oversaw the decorating of Ronald Reagan's hospital room after the president was shot -- and Matt David, the young political-communications consultant who's happy that he's no longer responsible for maintaining Arnold Schwarzenegger's public image, have been waiting for him to finish. Wiles smiles. "All set?" he asks in his thick Carolina drawl. It's now or never.

"All set," Huntsman says.

Now they stop to pick up Mary Kaye and two of their children -- twenty-three-year-old Liddy and Gracie Mei, their adopted daughter from China, who turns twelve today -- and together they make the short drive over to Logan. A thunderstorm is rolling in. Quickly everybody boards the plane, and a small mountain of battered luggage is stuffed into the back. Huntsman takes a seat facing the mountain, across from Wiles. Not long after the pilots lift up and over the dark clouds, the airport is swamped by sheets of rain and closed. Had Huntsman lingered over his lunch, had he taken a few more minutes to decide on the course of the rest of his life, New Hampshire and history would have had to wait.

Instead, sun streams through the windows. Two boxes of cupcakes and cookies are passed around and Liddy pulls out a pair of headphones. Her dad asks to look at her MP3 player; he's a music nerd, having once dropped out of high school to play keyboards for a prog-rock band named Wizard. The fifty-one-year-old Huntsman begins scrolling through her playlists before stopping. "The Boxer Rebellion?" he says. "Are they named after the actual Boxer Rebellion?"

Huntsman and his family returned from Beijing only twenty days ago, at the end of April. Fluent in Mandarin Chinese, he had served at the embassy for nearly two years, his third ambassadorship and his fourth time living in Asia. (The first stint came when he was posted to Taiwan as a Mormon missionary.) At the behest of President Obama, he had left the governor's mansion in Salt Lake City to take the job, early in his second term. It was a controversial appointment for a Republican to accept, before and after. "If your president asks you to serve, you serve," Huntsman always says. But only a few weeks ago, the handwritten thank-you note Huntsman had sent Obama mysteriously surfaced online. "You are a remarkable leader," it read in part, "and it has been a great honor getting to know you." There was only one way for the note -- dated August 16, 2009, and already labeled a "love letter" by the GOP's clown flank -- to come out just now, and for only one reason: Obama's people were trying to end Huntsman's campaign before it had a chance to begin, choking it with their warm embrace. Since the first rumors last winter that Huntsman might leave his post in Beijing to run for president, Obama had taken to calling him "outstanding" or "my buddy" in public -- or, most damaging of all, "my friend." None of that was an accident. Jon Huntsman's presidential aspirations risked becoming the first in history done in by love.

"I won't share with you the words I used with Mary Kaye when that note first came out," Huntsman will say later, driving through New Hampshire. Mary Kaye, sitting beside him in the back of the SUV, will smile only a little. "But listen. I don't write anything down, ever, without thinking, This could show up. The president appointed me, I thought that was a pretty bold move, I thought it showed leadership, and so I told him that. I stand by the content of that note. But I remember when I wrote it, I remember thinking, This is probably coming out sometime. They've done us a great service in some ways, by getting it out early. For a while I wondered whether it was someone really smart on our side who got it out, or someone really stupid on theirs."

Huntsman doesn't normally talk like that. He was made to be a diplomat. Ask him about his principal opposition for the Republican nomination, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, and he'll answer: "Mitt's a terrific guy and a formidable politician." Somewhere along the way, Huntsman and his team of advisors -- led by former John McCain campaign strategist John Weaver -- have decided that they can win a presidential campaign, can win two campaigns, in fact, by distancing themselves from rhetoric, from fire. They believe Huntsman's best quality is his dispassion, his realism, his ability to boil the emotion out of everything and leave only reason behind. Huntsman might look like HBO's version of a president -- flagpole posture, great hair, lean face -- but he gives the impression that his potential tenure would make for the most boring movie imaginable. A Jon Huntsman presidency would be a mathematical proof. It would be like watching water without waves.

"If you approach things with a sense of civility, stick to the issues, show some respect for the process and for the opposition, when you finally get there, I think more people will give you the benefit of the doubt," Huntsman says in the SUV. "I'll be mindful of that every day we're out here: How does what I say today translate if we win this thing?"

There's a reason ambassadors don't become presidents. The American political process isn't designed to promote harmony or commonalities or even dialogue. It's a steam-driven engine. Nobody has ever won an election -- outside of Utah, at least -- without spilling blood onto the sawdust. (Huntsman ran essentially unopposed the last time out; he won his second term for governor by a margin of 58 percent.) Lanny Wiles has been around long enough to know what it takes. Sometimes you have to show that you're ready for a fight, especially these days. Sometimes you want people to think that you're capable of turning over a table.

Now Wiles leans across the aisle of the jet. "Governor," he says -- as everyone on the campaign has been reminded to call Huntsman, because governors do become presidents -- "we should talk about Israel."

Earlier in the day, Obama had given a speech in which he had said that peace between Israel and Palestine rested on Israel's willingness to return to its pre-1967 borders, plus land swaps. Those words became an easy target for Republicans, a rare kind of gift. Former Speaker and now presidential candidate Newt Gingrich would call the proposal a "disaster" and ask for Congress to condemn it. "President Obama has thrown Israel under the bus," Mitt Romney said. Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor and another contender for the Republican nomination, said that the president had made a "mistaken and very dangerous demand."

Wiles smells opportunity, a chance for some much-needed juice to kick-start the campaign. But Huntsman seems more perplexed by Obama's speech than angered by it. He's not looking at it as an opening; he's looking at it the way a logician looks at a riddle, trying to find the reason.

"It's always been one of the basic tenets of foreign policy," Huntsman says. "Friends and allies, we let them handle their own strategy. Israel's our friend and ally."

The plane falls silent for a short while.

There is such a long way to go.

At last the skies begin opening up, somewhere over New Hampshire. It's a quilt of a state, perfect squares of green. From height, it looks like a model-train set. It looks placid and optimistic. There are a hundred small towns down there, made of red bricks, and Jon Huntsman is about to visit every last one, he's about to stand in every square of that quilt, starting today, starting at Jesse's, outside Lebanon, not quite in Hanover. Because if he is going to be the next president of the United States, and if he is going to try to be the president of all of us, he knows he must win here. Iowa... Iowa's already lost, its Republican base long ceded to the freaks. But not New Hampshire. New Hampshire is the middle. New Hampshire is the gateway. If he can do well there, it might help him in South Carolina the following week and, more important, in Florida shortly after. However far this journey turns out to be, New Hampshire is how he gets there from here.

"There's only one thing left to do," Wiles says when the plane begins its descent. "Relax. Have fun."

Over the decades, Wiles has traveled nearly every inch of these winding roads. He knows that Jesse's has a moose head on the wall and a bearskin draped over a beam, that the chairs are wood, like the tables, like the walls, like the ceiling, that the salad bar will be topped up and ready to go, and that a certain kind of people will be lined up in front of it, ordinary people -- and likely voters -- on whom Jon Huntsman is about to make his first impression.

"Governor, you want to take off that tie now?"

Today is the last day.

On the night of March 17, 2011, the people who would work on a possible Jon Huntsman presidential campaign came together for the first time, in a restaurant called Mr. B's Bistro on Royal Street in New Orleans. They arrived in small groups, walked through the restaurant, through the kitchen, and entered a private back room. A series of skinny tables had been set up in a large rectangle, with everybody facing the middle. There were two dozen people there, maybe more, some of them old friends, some of them never having met before. They had flown in from New Hampshire, from South Carolina, from Texas, from California, from Georgia, from Florida, from New York, as though summoned by a light in the sky. Most of them had never met Jon Huntsman, who was still in Beijing, more than seven thousand miles away.

They had come to New Orleans because John Weaver had an idea.

The fifty-one-year-old Weaver sat at one end of the room, drinking a vodka with orange juice in a short glass. After his long career as a political operative, he was a familiar figure in Republican circles: a tall, disheveled Texan with a long-limbed way of walking and a deceptively soft voice. (In private, Weaver could raise the hell out of it.) He had developed a large, loyal network of friends within the party apparatus and nearly as large a matrix of enemies. He led tough, controversial campaigns. Most famously, he had first mapped out, on the back of a bar napkin, how a senator named John McCain might become president; back in 2000, the Republican nomination process had taken an ugly turn in South Carolina, when Weaver accused George W. Bush's team -- meaning Karl Rove -- of using racially charged push polls to derail McCain's surprisingly emergent campaign.

Weaver and McCain tried again in the lead-up to 2008. In the space between, Weaver had narrowly survived cancer, and his and McCain's relationship had become something like love. They were no longer politician and strategist; because McCain couldn't lift his arms above his shoulders, Weaver brushed off the senator's suit jackets and combed his thinning white hair.

It all came to a terrible end in the summer of 2007. McCain, who had begun his second race as the front-runner, had found his campaign mired in conflict, split clean in two. Depending on who's telling the story, Weaver either quit or was fired, but everybody agrees that Weaver's time by McCain's side ended with the slamming of doors. Weaver moved back to Texas. The two men don't talk much anymore.

"I've tried to put it all out of my mind," Weaver says today, sitting at a New Hampshire bar while Huntsman has dinner downstairs. "We never talk about it in our house. I feel like I wasted ten or eleven years and put my family through a lot that they didn't need to be put through. But I've never slept better than I have since I left. And then you get up and you move on."

Weaver moved on to Huntsman. They had met through McCain. Huntsman was McCain's national campaign cochairman, often appearing at campaign stops and even uncomfortably croaking through a speech nominating Sarah Palin for vice-president at the Republican convention. He and Weaver began talking seriously about a possible presidential campaign after Huntsman had won his second term as governor in 2008. He was hugely popular in his home state, pursuing an agenda of fiscal conservatism and social semimoderation -- he supports civil unions for gay couples and believes climate change is an urgent issue but remains staunchly pro-gun and antiabortion. To Weaver's eyes, Huntsman seemed a natural-born candidate. They were about two weeks away from forming a leadership PAC when Huntsman called Weaver with some news about this job in China.

"There was dead silence," Weaver remembers.

Weaver focused instead on Rick Snyder's successful race for governor in Michigan, teaming up once again with his go-to crew. There was Fred Davis, the silver-haired advertising guru. (Davis had come up with Snyder's unconventional campaign slogan: ONE TOUGH NERD.) Wiles was there, as usual. ("He's the Forrest Gump of Republican politics," Weaver says. "Ask him to tell you about the time he was under President Reagan's bed.") Jake Suski, a rising young media star in Republican circles, as well as a fellow survivor of the McCain campaign, also joined in.

Together in Michigan, they began thinking about the next presidential cycle. Weaver and Davis both say they were approached to work on other campaigns, but they found the field of potential candidates too depressing to contemplate -- "the weakest since 1940," Weaver says. "There's a simple reason our party is nowhere near being a national governing party. No one wants to be around a bunch of cranks."

Weaver has watched his party's two-year zombie fever -- desperately trying to appease its most conservative elements -- with mounting despair. From his thousand-mile distance, he's charted McCain's long fall from onetime saint to bad-tempered old man, dismayed by McCain's Tea Party pandering about border fences and death panels and gays in the military. Weaver sees Romney as something similar, a kind of alien shape-shifter. ("What version are we on now?" Weaver says. "Mitt 5.0? 6.0?") He's more saddened by Tim Pawlenty's hard-right turn, so symbolic of his party's swing toward the rabid margins and away from serious presidential contention. "Tim's a nice guy," Weaver says. "And there's nothing worse than seeing a nice guy trying to pretend that he's angry. Is that really what we want to be? Is that how we're going to define ourselves? When's the last time an angry man ever solved a problem without using a gun?"

He looks into his drink and takes a breath. He's shifting a lot in his stool; his bad back is hurting him. "The frustrating thing is, Obama's beatable. I really believe that. But to beat Obama, you have to be bigger than Obama. That's how we save our party. If we can save the country -- if we can solve the major problems we face -- then we save the party. That's how this will work."

Weaver and his friends turned their attention to 2016, writing off this cycle as a lost cause, doomed by Sarah Palin's Tea Party Express stop and Newt Gingrich's buffoonery. Lost, that is, until Huntsman bought a new house in Washington, D.C., last summer and gave an interview to Newsweek magazine that ran in early January. In it, he was asked whether he thought he might run for president one day. "I think we may have one final run left in our bones," Huntsman said. Then he was asked whether he'd rule out running in 2012. Huntsman declined to answer.

That gave Weaver the idea that would fill the back room at Mr. B's Bistro in New Orleans. Here was his candidate: a man with corporate and political experience, a man who believed in science and reason, a man who could bridge divides with his sense of calm and his quiet voice, a man whose biggest potential hurdle was that he once said thanks to the president who had asked him to represent the United States in its relationship with its most important international competitor.

There was something else that Beijing had given Huntsman: an out. He had been absent during these last two years of weirdness and upheaval. He hadn't needed to pretend to accommodate the Tea Party and its faux populism, like Romney and Pawlenty and McCain, nor pay the price of not doing so, like his former colleague Bob Bennett, Utah's very conservative senator who was nevertheless abruptly pushed aside by the insurgency. Huntsman had missed all of it. He was unscarred and untainted by the party's internal wars.

He was also far out of range. Long-standing federal law prohibits administration employees from engaging in partisan politics, which meant Weaver couldn't communicate with Huntsman directly about a possible campaign. It made for a delicate, complicated operation. Weaver had to do a lot of reading between the lines. When he read that Newsweek interview, this is what he saw: FIRE UP THOSE COLD ENGINES, WEAVER. I'M COMING HOME.

And because Weaver couldn't wait for Huntsman's resignation, effective April 30, to begin building a top-drawer campaign team, he had to find another reason to call his people together. Weaver had to be creative.

First, he helped form a PAC called Horizon. Not affiliated in any way with Huntsman, Horizon was designed as a way to fund a new breed of Republican candidates at the local and state levels. (AMERICAN CAN DO SO MUCH BETTER was one of Horizon's unsparing slogans.) A lawyer was always present to tell them about the lines they could not cross. At another meeting in New Orleans, in a very serious tone, the lawyer warned the group that talking about Huntsman while on Horizon's clock could be a criminal offense. "Let me repeat that," the lawyer said. "A criminal offense." But in their free time, Weaver, Davis, Wiles, Suski, and the others could get together as concerned citizens, in the back rooms of restaurants, say, and begin discussing how a thoughtful, politically successful, effective (if virtually anonymous) ex-governor in China might challenge both the Republican party's far-enders and Barack Obama. They just had to start virtually every sentence that included the word "Huntsman" with "In my free time..."

Davis used his free time to imagine a campaign made of aluminum: sleek, modern, innovative, technological, efficient, beautiful. He sent out an enthusiastic e-mail that named Apple as their model. He designed a logo for Horizon that their ever-watchful lawyer agreed could later be sold to the Huntsman campaign for fair-market value. Davis asked that nothing conventional be so much as considered. Nothing old-fashioned. Nothing hackneyed. No red, white, and blue, at least not in combination with one another. Davis expressly forbade it in writing. No Times New Roman, while we're at it. No serifs.

In Weaver's free time, he built the perfect campaign, if only in his mind, a purposeful, flawless machine designed to win both the nomination and the presidency. "We could run a campaign that's geared toward a narrow slice of our party and then get blown out in the general election," Weaver says now at the bar in New Hampshire. "Or if we somehow won the general election by a field goal, then we wouldn't be able to govern effectively. What's the point of that? You have to conduct yourself in the primary so that you can win the general, and you have to win the general in a way that allows you to govern. That's why we're here."

That night in New Orleans, he got up from his seat and gave a shorter speech about what he hoped might unfold.

"No drama," he said.

And that same night, when everybody sat back down to their bowls of gumbo, to their plates of blackened catfish -- no candidate, either.

Huntsman, tieless, walks past the salad bar and stands under Jesse's moose head. There are maybe two dozen voters in the room, and easily as many reporters and cameramen. On the short drive from the airport, Weaver -- he'd been waiting for Huntsman in Lebanon -- took a call from Tim Miller, another member of the communications team. Miller, dubbed "Raincloud" for his invariably pessimistic view of any situation, was worried about the turnout. "That's how this works, Raincloud," Weaver had told him.

The crowd had grown since then. "The first time we came here with John McCain," Wiles says, "we had three people."

"That's right," says an older woman standing nearby with an American-flag scarf, gesturing to her even older husband. "We were two of them."

Later, Huntsman will describe walking into this, his first public dissection, as "both exhilarating and intimidating." Almost immediately, his audience begins making its cuts and judgments.

"He has good hair," one man says.

"He does have good hair," says another. "That's important."

"He's not wearing a flag in his lapel," says an observant third. Those are the sorts of things that matter and multiply here.

Huntsman takes his first stab at his stump speech. He's made a mental list of talking points, but he's unpolished and jumpy. He has the ideas, he has read and written the memos. He just doesn't have the rhythm. But then he makes a joke (Gracie Mei has come up with a new campaign slogan -- "Live Free or Die") that gets a good laugh, and he relaxes his shoulders a little. "We are the quintessential margin-of-error candidate," he says, a concession to his virtually nonexistent name recognition. "All I would ask is that you get to know us." He introduces himself, first through his family and then through his work. He says that from China, he gained a different perspective on America and its place in the world. He saw two countries, one on the rise, ascendant, and the other on the brink of economic collapse, crushed by debt and overregulation and taxes. He talks about sparking a new "industrial revolution," mostly through energy technology, reducing our reliance on oil. He says that Utah was rated one of the best-managed states in the union when he ran it, and he highlights his foreign-policy credentials (which, compared with the rest of the Republican field, make him seem like Marco Polo). He makes his pitch for civility, for a different kind of campaign. And then he takes questions from voters -- about Israel, about China, about climate change, and, finally, about Afghanistan.

"How much trouble do you want me to get in?" Huntsman says with a smile.

"Oh, go ahead," the voter says. "Put your whole foot in it."

Huntsman's first public appearance after his return to the U.S. was on April 30 at the White House Correspondents' Dinner at the Washington Hilton, across the street from his new house. He had bumped into Weaver in a drinks line there, but Weaver had told him to move along -- his resignation as ambassador didn't take effect until midnight, and they were in a room filled with watchful Beltway reporters. They met instead, at Huntsman's e-mailed request, the next morning at seven. Despite everything he'd done over the last few months to prepare a campaign, Weaver swears that until he got that e-mail, he couldn't know for sure whether he had a candidate. Weaver took the early-morning start to mean both that Huntsman was going to run and that he was eager about it.

Surrounded in his new house by half-emptied suitcases and moving-box clutter, Huntsman could at last talk openly with Weaver about the race. Not long after, Matt David, Jake Suski, and others -- hungover from the previous night's festivities and not expecting to meet Huntsman for at least another day -- were summoned, dragging themselves across the street from the hotel. They started by asking Huntsman his position on a wide range of policy. No one was expecting his answer that morning to the question of Afghanistan.

"If you can't define a winning exit strategy for the American people, where we somehow come out ahead, then we're wasting our money, and we're wasting our strategic resources," Huntsman told them, as he will recall later, sitting again in the back of his SUV between stops at a gun shop and a country store. "It's a tribal state, and it always will be. Whether we like it or not, whenever we withdraw from Afghanistan, whether it's now or years from now, we'll have an incendiary situation... Should we stay and play traffic cop? I don't think that serves our strategic interests."

The campaign team was taken aback by his forcefulness. He said he believed the United States should start a significant withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan immediately. He also would not have intervened in Libya -- "We just can't afford it." And he would seek to make serious cuts to the military's budget. "If you can't find anything there to cut, you're not looking hard enough."

It was a brave set of positions for a Republican to take. During that early-morning meeting, some of his new, hungover staff were now fully awake. A Republican? Cutting the military? That's an impossible sell. But Huntsman -- whose two sons, Jon and William, will both attend the Naval Academy in the fall -- made it clear that his focus was the debt. He was going to win or lose this campaign by talking about the true cost of a gallon of gas, of a cruise missile, of a collapsing dollar, of a U.S. Treasury security.

That night -- the night after those first D.C. meetings, after a jet-lagged Mary Kaye fell asleep on the couch and Huntsman himself finally ran out of steam -- Osama bin Laden was killed. Huntsman was asleep when the phone rang. One of his daughters, awake back in daytime China, was calling with the news. It was the sort of major development that altered the political landscape and, in the coming weeks, may have ushered a Republican cull: Mike Huckabee, Donald Trump, and Mitch Daniels all announced that they would not run for president, and Haley Barbour had already dropped out, leaving behind a smaller and less colorful field than had been expected. ("I have great faith in the resiliency of the American carnival industry," says Weaver, who's openly pulling for every Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and Rick Perry to join the race, the better to make his own candidate look.) Huntsman didn't flinch.

"My initial thought was, Ten years too late," he will say later of finding bin Laden. "And a bit of anger toward the Pakistani government, to be honest. I've been to Pakistan, I know how they operate, I know their politics, and I was angry that this guy could be thirty miles north of Islamabad, and their plausible deniability? That's just such bullshit, I can't even believe it."

Tonight at Jesse's, however, when he's asked to "put his foot in it," Huntsman says nothing of the sort. Privately, he says he's saving his sharper thoughts on Afghanistan and Pakistan for a major foreign-policy speech shortly after he announces his official candidacy, planned for June. (At that dinner in New Orleans, a lot of the younger staff had said they wanted Huntsman to declare only days after he stepped off the plane from China. Weaver agreed to skip the pointless "exploratory committee" step of the dance but thought mid- to late June would give them a better chance of having people actually show up.) Tonight, here, Huntsman wants to make a gentler introduction. He doesn't want to make any mistakes. He wants to be whatever his audience wants him to be. "We're here not with all the answers," he says, "but to listen and to learn."

He leaves Jesse's and heads to Hanover, where he's going to sit down for his first major TV interview, with George Stephanopoulos of Good Morning America. On the drive over, Weaver, Wiles, and David give him some last-minute coaching. It will show. Huntsman will do well.

By the time he gets out of his SUV and heads inside, there's also a pin in his lapel.

The next morning, Huntsman stands outside his hotel on the main street in tidy Keene, looking at the day's agenda. It looks the way his schedule will look every day between now and whatever finish awaits him: an endless series of house parties, photo opportunities, donor lunches, media interviews, town halls, and all those miles in between.

Two weeks earlier, Wiles had paid a visit to a little white house kept by Bobbie and Jarvis Coffin, on a quiet country road outside Hancock, New Hampshire. The Coffins had become active in the Republican primary in 2000, during McCain's unsuccessful first run for the nomination. Wiles now asked them to play host again, this time to a candidate they knew nothing about. Wiles told them a little about the man whose side he was now on, hoping they would hear enough to open their doors once again -- and, if things went well, perhaps their sprawling backyard later in the summer. ("You should see what we could do back there with a big tent on a sunny day," Wiles says.) The Coffins put their faith in Wiles, and now, on this rainy Friday morning, maybe twenty friends and neighbors -- and even more reporters -- crowd into their living room and kitchen, where a big pot of coffee is brewing.

The event goes smoothly. Huntsman, comfortable in brown cords and a white shirt, answers a series of hard questions first from the voters -- "Who are you?" one man asks -- and next from reporters: Would he repeal Obamacare? (He says he would.) Is he conservative enough to win the Republican nomination? (He says he is; Haley Barbour has said so, too.)

After, Huntsman walks a short stretch down the road from the Coffin house and joins CNN's John King on a bridge over a river. Even with scattered raindrops falling, it's a beautiful spot, quiet and treed. In front of a pair of cameras, King, who has an enormous head, asks Huntsman about his support for civil unions. "I'm for civil unions," Huntsman says. "I believe in traditional marriage, but I think subordinate to that, we don't do an adequate job when it comes to equality and fairness."

The audio feed is sent to CNN's Washington, D.C., bureau, where it's quickly transcribed to promote the interview online and on TV.

Later that evening -- after paying necessary visits to the Union Leader and WMUR, hoping to curry favor with two of the state's most important media outlets -- Huntsman is unwinding in his fifth-floor hotel room at the Hilton Garden Inn in downtown Manchester. He puts on CNN and sees that, according to the ticker running across the bottom of his screen, he's told John King that he's "forcibly unique," which would have been a pretty strange, if memorable, thing for him to say. Huntsman calls Jake Suski, who is just sitting down with Matt David to a late dinner at a downtown restaurant -- the first food either has eaten all day. Suski has some work to do in a hurry.

The problem, Suski determines, is a garbled transcription: Somewhere along the way, "I'm for civil unions" became "I'm forcibly unique." The network soon erases its error, but not before it's started to make the rounds, including a Twitter potshot by CNN's Dana Bash, delivered instantly to her 17,927 followers.

Suski returns to his dinner, another fire put mostly out. He and David both begin to pull the difficult trick of eating and deflating at the same time. In the grand scheme of presidential politics, they know that "I'm forcibly unique" qualifies as a minor annoyance, easily remedied and nearly as easily forgotten. But it's emblematic of every campaign's new reality: a constant battle against a relentless combination of honest mistake, misunderstanding, and gaffe, and all of it circulated at an incredible pace. Watching the sleepless communications staff working their iPads and BlackBerrys -- David carries a ziplock bag containing seven batteries for his -- it's clear that time is no longer the enemy of politics, the effort to get out the good word. Speed is. Already, Weaver's flawless machine has become too fast to control.

In the meantime, Wiles has asked a favor of a local photographer he's known for years. He's had him shoot a picture of the Coffins standing beside a smiling Huntsman on their front step; Wiles will have Huntsman sign the photograph, which will then be delivered to that little white house in Hancock, now with its empty living room and its empty kitchen, the coffeepot long gone cold. That's the sort of delicate touch that can still swing a place like New Hampshire. It's a state that's still won by the ones and twos. David and Suski have a harder time quantifying their own victories. "If 60 percent of the coverage in a day is positive," David says, "then I can go to bed that night feeling like I won."

On his last full day in New Hampshire (before back-to-back-to-back trips to California, Nevada, Utah, Texas, Washington, D.C., and, sooner than anyone might have expected, back to New Hampshire), Huntsman makes the long drive to picturesque Wolfeboro, on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee. It's a postcard. It's a travel brochure. Romney has a house on the lake, and it's a classic Weaver move to come here, to deliver a little wake-up shot to the ribs. Huntsman gives his best stump speech yet to a room full of active local Republicans, taking the chance to drop briefly into Mandarin for the benefit of a few Chinese students in attendance. His audience loves it and responds warmly to him. They like this guy, whoever he is. Weaver watches happily from the back of the room. "None of us got into this because we thought we were going to lose," he says. "But you can't rush the narrative. We're in exactly the chapter we should be in."

Huntsman, Mary Kaye, and their daughters then walk down to the lakeshore. Liddy leaves to head up the street -- still unaffected, in these early days, no men in suits talking into their wrists behind her -- and grabs a bag full of sandwiches, chips, and pop. The Huntsmans sit on a short wall with their backs to the lake and eat their picnic lunch. The rest of the team dips into the sandwiches or buys hot dogs from a nearby stand and takes a few moments to breathe. It's a pretty day, a breeze coming in off the lake. New Hampshire looks the way it looked from that plane, placid and optimistic.

It's strange to think that the man sitting on that wall, tucking into a sandwich, might one day be president. It's equally hard to look at him and not wonder whether he might be coming along right on time. He'll be called a RINO and a traitor and a nobody in the coming weeks and months, but he'll also be called reasonable and practical and professional and electable. Even today, so close to the start of everything, his path is clear: He needs to find a broader Republican base, drawing in those right-leaning voters who presently find themselves without a country, fiscal conservatives who don't much care whether two men get hitched or their candidate's wearing a pin in his lapel. His success or failure will be dictated by just how many people like him have been waiting for the storm of paranoid rhetoric to pass, waiting for the return of a party and a candidate who wants to govern rather than rage. Have they been out there all this time, waiting, quietly, by the millions? Right now, on this lakeshore afternoon, he still has such a long way to go -- how can he ever think that all of this might happen for him?

After Huntsman finishes his lunch, he walks out on a long dock. Gracie Mei walks beside him. He has his arm draped over her. They're alone at the end of the dock, alone for maybe the last time for months, possibly for years. Hardly anybody knows they're here. But here they are -- looking out over the water, looking out over the waves -- waiting for this narrative to unfold, waiting for the next chapter to be written.

This is the first day.


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