Jon Huntsman Begins Filling in the Blanks

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Corrected, 12:00 P.M.

Jon Huntsman’s first trip to New Hampshire was a get-to-know-you affair, a chance to showcase his skills as a retail politician as he hopscotched through gun shops, VFW halls and living rooms. By virtually all accounts it was a success. The press coverage was fawning, even as Huntsman ducked policy inquiries, declining even to swing at softball questions about how his views diverged from Barack Obama’s. “I don’t want to get into specifics,” he told TIME in South Carolina, having apparently decided to wait until the jet lag wore off to start launching broadsides.

The former Utah governor and Ambassador to China still hasn’t taken any potshots at his former boss. But on his second trip to New Hampshire last weekend, he’s begun dropping hints about how he’ll separate himself from Obama. “We have no pro-growth policies,” Huntsman told Real Clear Politics. “When’s the last time we had a free-trade agreement?”

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Huntsman lays out his own pro-growth policies. The piece should play well with most conservatives, but it’s not exactly teeming with specifics. Huntsman would pair a debt-ceiling hike with spending cuts, lower corporate tax rates while closing loopholes and deductions, “aggressively” pursue free-trade agreements. (Obama has three such agreements pending, with Columbia, Panama and South Korea; they’re held up over the White House’s decision to tie them to a renewal of a program that benefits workers.) This is largely boilerplate, and the aspect of the op-ed that will garner the most attention is Huntsman’s comments about entitlement reform. “I admire Congressman Paul Ryan’s honest attempt to save Medicare,” Huntsman writes. “Those who disagree with his approach incur a moral responsibility to propose reforms that would ensure Medicare’s ability to meet its responsibilities to retirees without imposing an unaffordable tax burden on future generations of Americans.”

If Huntsman he becomes a presidential candidate, his first task will be to dispel doubts among conservatives. Many of the party faithful are suspicious of his recent ties to Obama, his Mormon roots and his past support for policy positions that have become heresies within much of the GOP like support for cap-and-trade, civil unions for gay couples and Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus package. Pledging fealty to Ryan in the face of the Republican budget’s flagging support helps burnish Huntsman’s bona fides among leery segments of the base. It’s easy to discern that is one of the op-ed’s primary purposes; he manages to name-check Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater in the first sentence alone. Huntsman wants to show that the “moderate” label he gets tagged with isn’t the whole story.

And it isn’t. Huntsman compiled a staunchly conservative record in Utah, on matters ranging from abortion to the budget. Expect to hear echoes of this passage everywhere he goes on the campaign trail:

When I was the governor of Utah, we cut and flattened tax rates. We balanced budgets and grew our rainy-day fund. And when the economic crisis struck, we didn’t raise taxes or rely on accounting gimmicks to hide obligations. We cut spending and made government more efficient. We increased revenues by facilitating a business environment in which innovators and job creators could expand our economic base. Utah maintained its AAA bond rating, and in 2008 it was named the best-managed state in the nation by the Pew Center on the States. We proved that government doesn’t have to choose between fiscal responsibility and economic growth.

One place where Republicans won’t be hearing much from Huntsman is Iowa, where he has little name recognition and where his views don’t always square with the state’s social conservative voters. In a recent poll of 481 Iowa Republicans, just one picked Huntsman as their preferred GOP presidential candidate. “Not 1%. One respondent,” Public Policy Polling tweeted with evident glee, noting the man also voted for Obama in 2008.

Of course, Huntsman hasn’t been running in Iowa. His path from fledgling upstart to legitimate contender will run through New Hampshire–though he’s skipping a June 13 debate as he weighs jumping into the race–and Florida, a swing state where his staff expects his even-keeled and eloquent style, international experience and pragmatic views to play well. “I think it’s fair to say he’s the most purple” of the leading GOP candidates, says an aide, who admits the characterization is “probably heretical” in some circles. “That’s not to say he’s not conservative. He certainly is. But he acknowledges things like, by the way, the world is getting warmer.” Winning the nomination hinges on finding the right shade between purple and red.

The initial version of this post said Huntsman has visited New Hampshire twice. His second trip to the state is this weekend.