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Huntsman's Personality Problem

The wrong man for this moment? The online communications director for the now-defunct campaign writes that the strategists were expecting a more exciting candidate to return from China.

Last updated on January 17, 2012, at 12:41 p.m. ET

Posted on January 17, 2012, at 12:41 p.m. ET

JASON REED / Reuters

The Huntsman campaign's online communications director, James Richardson, comes clean today about one of their operation's greatest miscalculations: they thought the candidate they were building their campaign around was going to be more exciting than he turned out to be.

The candidate's well-documented branding challenges, Richardson writes in The Atlantic, boiled down to his personality:

The real problem was that the campaign had been choreographed without the candidate. Aides to the now-defunct Huntsman campaign pledged even before the principal, hoping a robust organization might compel the still-jet lagged ambassador to take the plunge against his former boss.

The grand pageantry and promise of Huntsman's June launch -- staged in the shadow of Lady Liberty, as campaign surrogates were trained to say -- dwarfed the subdued, conciliatory tone the candidate struck.

In truth, the power of personality that once vaulted Obama from primary underdog to president factored greatly into the Huntsman calculus.

The contours of Huntsman's bid were drawn as though he was the Republican counter to Obama. And in the most shallow of senses, he was: In him was a young, telegenic pol sporting the fiscally conservative credentials of Paul Ryan and the globetrotting of Henry Kissinger.

But whereas the president quickened the progressive pulse with saber rattling on Republican union-busting or the dissolution of entitlements, Huntsman refused to likewise rally activists of his party. Some might say he had a clinical aversion to pandering.

Much has been written in Huntsman campaign post-mortems about how his strategists misread the political moment that would be 2012. But Richardson, crucially, adds that the campaign -- which was built before their candidate even returned from China -- also misread the man himself: where they expected a Republican Obama, they got a jet-lagged diplomat who never quite seemed to fully wake up.

I noticed the same lack of vivaciousness when I met him shortly before he resigned his post in Beijing. From my obituary of the campaign, published yesterday:

He was slender, well-coiffed, and wearing a plaid shirt that quite consciously walked the line between Urban Outfitters and L.L. Bean -- a persona he would later polish on the campaign trail. He spoke so softly at times that my recorder didn’t pick up his voice, which was fine because most of the time he wasn’t directly answering my questions anyway.