San Diego Union Tribune

May 17, 2007

Hunter struggles to be noticed on GOP debate stage

Candidate keeps focus on security

COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

COLUMBIA, S.C. – There was a rare edge in Duncan Hunter's voice as he parried the final question from the reporter for WTKK talk radio in Boston.

“If you were governor of California, would you pardon Paris Hilton?” Michael Graham asked as he thrust his microphone ever closer to the weary Alpine Republican.

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“I don't know anything about Paris Hilton,” replied a frowning Hunter, who had just finished his second debate with nine other Republican presidential candidates. “My focus is on national security.”

The brief interview unfolded Tuesday night in Columbia amid the swirling media frenzy of the post-debate spin room – a scene that underscored the huge odds Hunter, 58, faces as he pursues the Republican presidential nomination.

A former chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Hunter stood for several moments virtually unnoticed as former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani swept into the room in the center of a huge, pushing-and-shoving media gaggle.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Arizona Sen. John McCain made similar entrances as they left the debate, set on the campus of the University of South Carolina.

But as his answer to the question about Hilton demonstrated, the 14-term congressman knows the importance of staying on message, and Hunter is betting that the outcome of next year's presidential election will turn on defending the homeland.

Even Patrick Caddell, a veteran Democratic strategist on hand to observe the occasion, agreed that Hunter is showing skill in playing his hand – his other cards being an insistence on strengthening border security and cracking down on China's cheating on trade.

“On his things he was very strong and very articulate – very passionate,” Caddell said. “I thought he helped himself – a long way to go. But out of the second tier, he and (former Arkansas Gov. Mike) Huckabee did well.”

Despite high political stakes, Hunter approached the nationally televised debate as if it were just another event on a crowded workday schedule.

Instead of the normal candidates' routine of remaining holed up in a hotel room while being prepped by aides firing off likely questions, Hunter strolled the grounds adjoining the debate site, doing media interviews. He also gave a brief speech to a rally of several thousand foes of the Internal Revenue Service who hope to junk the income tax in favor of a national sales tax.

“That's what I do on the House floor,” Hunter said. “I have people firing questions all the time. That's my debate prep.”

As in the previous debate, Hunter failed to use all the debate time allotted for answers, even though campaign aide Roy Tyler urged him to take every precious second before a national audience on the Fox News broadcast.

“I give very compact answers,” Hunter said after the event. “I let people know where I stand.”

Indeed, he spoke just 834 words, taking up only about 5 percent of the almost 16,000 spoken by all the candidates. Hunter also fielded the fewest questions, tying with Rep. Tom Tancredo at five. Luckily for him, the five were all on topics he's stressing: two on China, one on immigration and two related to Iraq and the war on terror.

They gave him the chance to sound tough, noting his own service in Vietnam and blasting the Bush administration for having “a case of the slows on border enforcement.”

At the tax event before the debate, Hazel Jordan, an 80-year-old widow from Savannah, Ga., gushed over what she had heard. “I love Duncan Hunter. He's the finest congressman we have,” she said. “I listen to his views, and where he stands. And it's where I stand.”

But, Jordan admitted, she's flirting with a primary-election vote for Romney, in part because she thinks he's better positioned to capture the nomination and win the general election.

And while Hunter has placed heavy emphasis on hitching his campaign to a strong showing in the early South Carolina Republican primary, his message hadn't broken through to Tom Reynolds, a 55-year-old independent construction contractor from Myrtle Beach, S.C.

“That was the first time I've heard him,” Reynolds said at Tuesday's Fair Tax event. “Obviously he supports the fair tax. That's the only thing I know. I'm certainly going to look him up when I get home.”

A recent poll of likely South Carolina GOP primary voters by Whit Ayres found McCain leading the field at 25 percent, with Hunter lagging at 1 percent.

Pressed in the spin room on his viability both in South Carolina and elsewhere during the primaries, Hunter pointed to strong showings in Republican straw votes in several South Carolina counties, particularly a joint sampling in Spartanburg and Greenville counties.

“I think straw polls taken by the counties should say something,” Hunter told one reporter. “When we get our message out, we go up like a rocket.”

Rick Beltram, chairman of the Spartanburg County GOP, agreed – to a point.

Noting that the two counties are likely to account for up to one-quarter of the statewide Republican primary vote, Beltram said, “There is some credibility to the fact that if he can get his message out, it resonates.”

But getting his message out to Republican activists and primary-election voters beyond a handful of South Carolina counties means lots of TV advertising – difficult to do given that Hunter raised only a little over half a million dollars in the last quarter, eighth out of the 10 candidates in a field paced by Romney's $23 million.

“The question is, can he raise enough money to get the message out to most folks who simply sit and watch TV?” Beltram asked. “I will say it's doable, but it's an uphill battle.”

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