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Riding the Huntsman Bus to Nowhere

They rolled out of Washington in the dead of night. But the Huntsman bus was wide-awake. A group of around 50 young Jon Huntsman supporters had hit the road, heading up to Liberty State Park, New Jersey, to see the former ambassador announce his dark-horse candidacy. Like the campaign itself, the pilgrimage had been cobbled together at the last minute. The young volunteers had gotten word only a few days in advance and had scrambled to fill buses from D.C. and Philadelphia. Stephen, a Huntsman organizer with a Utah basketball jersey draped over his button-down, handed out bagels. As another called roll, someone in the back yelled “Huntsmania!”

Unlike the Romney, Pawlenty, or Palin cliques, many of Huntsman’s staff and supporters are just getting to know him. And what Team Huntsman lacks in organization, it doesn’t make up for in diversity. The bus buzzed with clean-shaven young men, uniformed in button-down shirts and combed hair—a Rhodes candidate, Koch Foundation Fellow, Georgetown Public Policy Institute scholar, and a few former Mitch Daniels and Haley Barbour supporters, smiling like Olympians on the silver medal stand. There were a few young women, some from the College Republican National Committee. They “couldn’t officially endorse anyone,” they said—but sources in the Huntsman campaign assured me the organization’s chairman was totally on board.

The young folks talked shop. The Tea Party? “Fucking nuts!” The current crop of GOP candidates? “Just as fiscally irresponsible as Democrats.” On the morning Huntsman caravan, there was no talk of creeping Sharia law, socialism, or birth certificates. The bus-full of hopefuls rose early for a dose of sanity, not Hannity (who interviewed Huntsman after the speech). “We’re the demographic he’s seeking out: socially liberal, fiscally conservative,” said one journeyer. “This is bigger than just Republicans,” said another. The guys passed around a leaked version of the upcoming speech like a skin mag, and some tweeted from their smartphones: #jointheHunt. Meanwhile, a lone older gentleman at the back of the bus seemed at a loss as he quizzed the Huntsmaniacs. “So what’s your biggest issue?” “Definitely the debt.” “Not foreign policy? Not social issues?” “No, not at all.”

Cooper, a fluent Mandarin-speaker and American University grad-student, told me that he’s a “Huntsman hipster—I liked Huntsman before it was cool.” He said he’s been following the multimillionaire moderate Mormon since December. Cooper’s uncle and aunt used to mail teabags to their congressman, he recalls; at their urging, Cooper showed up at a Tea Party rally. “I was the only one under 35,” he laments. The activists pushed an eminent domain petition into his hands and he refused to sign it. “They called me a liberal journalist. When I used my iPad, I got called a liberal journalist three times. They were terrifying.”

As we left the Washington twilight behind and hit the open road, the darkness began to lift. The sun rose on the horizon and someone’s ring-tone went off, beeping the theme from Star Wars—“a new hope.” But then, we arrived.

The bus pulled into Liberty State Park with only a few minutes to spare before the speech. “Guys, we gotta hustle!” yelled organizer Patrick. Stephen, the organizer in the jersey, donned a Utah Jazz cape and delivered high fives as the group marched off the bus. But marching wasn’t enough. As we approached the tiny podium in the corner of the park, a suited Huntsman staffer jogged up. “Guys! We’re about to start his live-shot and we need everyone to run!” Shirts untucked, combed hair disheveled, the young Republicans charged forward into the breach.

When the group arrived, I realized why. There was practically nobody there. Apart from a few hangers-on and the 50-plus journalists, our bus was pretty much the audience. In total, there couldn’t have been more than 100 souls at the tiny affair.

With two minutes to go, a cameraman’s voice rang out from the back: “Wait! We have no power!” A flustered former Texas Congressman, Tom Loeffler, stepped up to the podium and the microphone went dead. Another voice yelled “count down, sir, count down!” A photographer next to me leaned in and chuckled, “Great way to start a campaign, huh?” Undeterred, a hopeful staffer shouted up to the congressman, “The power’s coming back Tom, it’s coming back.” Finally, as latecomers were shuffled into place, the microphone clicked to life, and the crowd politely clapped.

Then came Huntsman in the flesh, making an awkward 45-second stroll to the podium from the other side of the park. As the soft-spoken Utahan delivered the optimistic message of civility and respect that I had read on the bus, helicopters twice roared overhead, all but drowning him out. Though it had been rumored that Huntsman would endorse the Ryan budget, he didn’t, saving his warmest words for the young Republicans in the crowd: “another greatest generation.”

In the small, relaxed group, no one stood more than 20 feet away from Huntsman himself. There was our busload, some law students, Huntsman family friends, GOP luminary Peggy Noonan, and a couple of guys from the New Jersey motorcycle club Ocean County Competition Riders. (Rocky Spano and Brian Hamilton, “his sidekick,” wanted to invite Huntsman, who rides motorcycles, for a ride and to give him a t-shirt.) I met one old Huntsman friend, Michael Skarzynski, who had worked with the ex-governor at the Department of Commerce. Skarzynski told me he wanted to join the campaign as an aide. It was unclear why he hadn’t yet done so, though many on the bus had worried in hushed tones about a recent New York Times profile, accusing the inchoate campaign of disorganization.

After the 20-minute speech, Huntsman’s attractive family took the stage with him, before migrating a couple of dozen yards down the dock for the interview with Sean Hannity. Here, the reporter-to-real-people ratio took its true toll. As the media swarmed, one tussled with a staffer, yelling “Do you have to pull me away?” The staffer angrily responded, “I’m trying to keep the press away.” (Despite the hiccups, Lanny Wiles, Huntsman’s new advance man, wasn’t afraid to work the crowd. “This is only my fifth presidential announcement tour!” he joked to me.)

Eventually, the young Republicans, tired but smiling, loaded themselves back onto the bus for the five-hour drive back to Washington. They had gotten their cerebral, moderate, not-bonkers Republican. But those looking for pomp, circumstance, and a well-rehearsed, energetic campaign event with hundreds of devotees in attendance—in short, an event that offered more hope for a victory in 2012—were likely disappointed. Beyond the bus, it’s not yet clear Huntsman has a real base for his presidential run.

Alex Klein is an intern at The New Republic.