Now that we’re into the endgame in New Hampshire, people are beginning to focus on whether Jon Huntsman stands a chance at making a serious run at Mitt Romney. After all, Huntsman is sort of the Granite State version of Rick Santorum, right? He’s been camped out in the state for months, hitting its smallest hamlets and indulging even the tiniest of crowds. His profile–in this case semi-moderate and dogma-bucking–hits the state’s traditional sweet spot. And he’s the only candidate who still hasn’t surged! If past is prologue in this race, he’s about to take off and change the shape of the race one more time.
Or not. It’s hard to conceive of the voter who doesn’t already support the former Utah governor and Ambassador to China but may yet wind up voting for him. For a time it seemed possible that Huntsman could rebrand himself as a conservative alternative to Romney, because in some key ways he is more conservative. Huntsman’s tax and economic plan is actually father to the right–ask the Wall Street Journal, which doesn’t approve of Romney’s. And people overlooked Huntsman’s open support of the incendiary Ryan plan, around which Romney has carefully tap danced.
But those distinctions are tricky to explain. Romney’s tax plan is still pretty conservative. (I likewise don’t see Newt Gingrich getting a ton of mileage with his complaint, shared by the Journal, that Romney only cuts capital gains taxes for the middle class.) Romney has a kind of Ryan-lite budget and entitlements plan. It’s hard to see all but the most informed and tax-and-budget focused voters choosing Huntsman over Romney on this score. (And I have to wonder how that crowd feels about his hard-nosed financial regulation plan anyway.)
Social issues? Huntsman has probably been more consistent on abortion. But he’s also struck a conspicuously moderate profile on global warming and evolution. That’s only two issues, yes, but both carry much larger symbolic meaning about where one stands in the culture wars. And he has other moderate marks in the fine print of his resume, including support for same-sex civil unions. Barring some desperate last-minute Perry-style “transformation” on his part, social conservatives aren’t likely to give him a second look, especially when the likes of Santorum and Perry are still on offer.
For this reason, and despite his economic conservatism, it is remarkable how many Democrats continue to speak admiringly about Huntsman. So maybe it’s no wonder that, even after what’s likely to be a painful defeat for him in New Hampshire, he’s got a New York fund raiser scheduled just a few days later. His game now might not be about winning the Republican nomination. It might be about coming back as a third party independent. How well that shoe really fits him is a question for another day.