With a vulnerable incumbent president, the profile of a strong Republican general-election opponent includes a consistently conservative record that eschews fringe views, a proven and scandal-free track record as an executive and respectable national-security credentials.
The candidate who fits that bill is Jon Huntsman, a popular and successful former governor of Utah with a squeaky clean record. He is a middle-of-the-road conservative Republican and two-time ambassador, most recently tapped by President Barack Obama as his envoy to China. At 51, he’s youthful and telegenic.
He’s also mired in last place in the Republican field in the latest national polls. He gets 1 percent in surveys this month by the Washington Post and Bloomberg, trailing obscure aspirants such as Herman Cain and Rick Santorum.
The Huntsman camp insists it’s premature to write off his candidacy. He is banking on winning in New Hampshire, the initial primary, to jump start the campaign. If so, his family wealth would provide resources for a protracted fight.
Even with his miserable poll standings, he is attracting some blue-chip support. He received endorsements last week from Tom Ridge, the former governor of Pennsylvania who was the first secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, and John Mack, the chairman of Morgan Stanley.
Nevertheless, the post mortems already are being written to explain how a candidate with such promise is faltering among the lowly also-rans. Only a few months ago, Huntsman was the candidate some Democratic strategists said they feared most. The White House assiduously was collecting a dossier of Huntsman’s cables and statements to prepare an assault.
A late entry into the race -- he returned from China in May and began the campaign over the summer -- proved more of a handicap than expected.
“We were doing it on the run,” says Huntsman’s chief campaign strategist, John Weaver.
More troubling for the Huntsman candidacy than his late return to the U.S. is where he returned from. The Mandarin-speaker won high praise as an effective, engaged and loyal diplomat.
Yet honorable service as Obama’s ambassador to China is a double disqualifier for some of the right-wing bloggers and conservative political activists who hate both the president and China.
Huntsman is a traditional conservative on most economic issues, and his proposals are the most sweeping in the field. He would eliminate all tax deductions, including those for charities and home mortgages, and lower rates to three levels, 8 percent, 14 percent, and 23 percent. All taxes on capital gains and dividends would be eliminated in a plan that would especially benefit wealthier taxpayers.
“There are a lot of asset-holders in this country,” Huntsman said in a Sept. 16 interview.
In addition, he proposes to lower the corporate rate to 25 percent from 35 percent and vows to curtail a lot of government regulations.
Nevertheless, he has alienated much of his party’s right wing, which focuses on his support for civil unions for gays and lesbians or his criticism of the anti-science posture of Republicans who question evolution or global warming.
These are mainstream positions in a general election, but the kiss of death in Republican primaries. Already, some conservative politicians such as South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley have announced that Huntsman is the one candidate they can’t support.
‘A Complex Individual’
Even more it may be that Huntsman doesn’t fit the times, out of sync with an electorate marked by anger and anxiety.
“Jon Huntsman is a complex individual; he looks at problems and sees the complexity,” says Alex Castellanos, a leading Republican consultant. “When you speak to him, you get the big picture but not a simple narrative.”
This is in contrast to some opponents: “Rick Perry enjoys a beneficial simplicity. It’s not hard for him to focus on a problem and have an immediate solution,” says Castellanos, who is neutral in the contest, though his son works for Huntsman.
The Huntsman camp insists there’s still time for a breakthrough. Everything hinges on New Hampshire, and they note that both the Democratic candidate Gary Hart at this stage in 1983 and the Republican nominee John McCain in 1999 were asterisks in the polls. They went on to win the Granite State primary months later.
“There are only three people who have a plausible chance to win the nomination: Huntsman, Romney and Perry,” says Weaver, the campaign strategist. In the interview, Huntsman doesn’t hesitate to take shots at the two frontrunners. Romney, he charges, lacks sufficient “hands-on foreign policy experience” and had a mediocre record as governor of Massachusetts.
Texas Governor Perry, he says, is sending a message that he’s “out of the mainstream” by questioning climate change and evolution.
Huntsman says the two critical elements in New Hampshire are “time on the ground” and “the clarity of your message.” He is skipping the Iowa caucuses, and no candidate will spend more time in New Hampshire.
In New Hampshire, independents can vote in either primary and Democrats can switch registration; with no real Democratic presidential primary, Huntsman’s more moderate message could resonate with these voters.
Huntsman and his campaign say they can capitalize on a victory in New Hampshire with the nucleus of a good organization elsewhere and will be in position to win the crucial Florida primary. The campaign’s headquarters are in Orlando.
In a formula that seems more wistful than realistic, the Huntsman camp insists that while the extremes of the political spectrum dominate much of the debate, there is an angry center of the electorate that their candidate can tap into.
More likely, New Hampshire will be the Huntsman campaign’s swan song. And the question will linger: Shouldn’t he have waited until the country, and his party, are in a more receptive mood for his brand of politics, and there was more distance from his service as an Obama ambassador?
(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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