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.
“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
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
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
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
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