The GOP’s Huntsman Test

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In his latest introductory story about the GOP presidential contenders, Jeff Zeleny writes up the prospect of Jon Huntsman joining the 2012 Republican fray. The candidacy of (in Zeleny’s words) “a motorcycle-riding, keyboard-playing, Mandarin-speaking Mormon”–and one serving until April 30 in the Obama administration, as U.S. ambassador to China–would certainly be entertaining. It would also put to the test two core Republican goals which may be irreconcilable.

The first goal is to return the GOP back to pure conservative orthodoxy; this is the Tea Party mantra in a nutshell. The second is to defeat Barack Obama at all costs. I realize there are people who think that one naturally leads to the next. But there are more people–including most of the Republican Party establishment–who think that nominating a Tea Party hero/heroine will replicate Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell debacle on a national scale.

A Huntsman campaign might force Republican voters to decide between the two propositions. As Zeleny notes, his record is full of heresies–from gay rights to global warming to calling Barack Obama a “remarkable leader.” (You can also add conservative crankiness over his spending record as Utah governor to the list.) Jennifer Rubin thinks that Huntsman doesn’t even “pass the laugh test” with conservative voters, and that talk of his candidacy is a case of liberal-media wish fulfillment.

But some GOP strategists, including an adviser to a 2012 hopeful with whom I spoke today, aren’t so quick to write off Huntsman’s prospects. They recognize that many GOP voters are more interested in beating Obama than in cap-and-trade or even gay marriage. Those voters might support a candidate who can credibly promise to appeal to independent voters in a general election without being tarred as a totem of the increasingly unpopular Tea Party. It’s the same mentality that led Democratic voters in 2004–who also felt that their party had sold out its principles–to choose John Kerry over Howard Dean. (And don’t forget the independent New Hampshire voters who can cast ballots in that state’s semi-open primary, with no Democratic primary to draw away the left-leaners.)

Ironically, though, it’s possible that if Huntsman runs, a more conservative nominee will emerge than would have otherwise. Why? Because Huntsman is likely to inflict the most damage on Mitt Romney, with whom he will compete to be the sensible-businessman moderate (and with whom he has a reputed personal rivalry). Like Romney, Huntsman will have a lot of money to spend–and he may direct a negative ad blitz at Romney in New Hampshire (given that neither man will likely compete hard in Iowa). If the two men get caught in a slugfest which tears them both down, that could clear the way for a more conservative candidate to rise above the fray–say, a Tim Pawlenty or Haley Barbour. If someone other than Romney wins New Hampshire, they’ll enjoy a huge slingshot into subsequent states. And it may be that Huntsman’s bank account and need to displace Romney represents the best chance of that happening.

Or, he may not run at all. But it’s fun to speculate.

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