Last weekend, my dinner partner, a self-described "Theodore Roosevelt Republican, very disturbed and discouraged by the Tea Party movement," detailed for me the reasons Jon Huntsman Jr. could not win the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. "He is intelligent, attractive, has proven leadership credentials as a businessman and former governor, and would be best suited to take on Obama in a general election. So, of course, our party won't nominate him."
Joking aside, rumors about the current U.S. ambassador to China (he is resigning that post effective April 31) and his future plans have the Washington chattering class buzzing. The entity currently formed in Utah—Horizon PAC—appears to be setting the stage for Huntsman should he decide to jump in. Operatives working with Horizon PAC are quick to point out that the entity has no personal affiliation with Huntsman whatsoever. There is no reason to doubt them, as any political communication with the ambassador would prove a serious violation of the Hatch Act. Horizon PAC is helmed by the sometimes controversial political strategist John Weaver (full disclosure, Weaver is a friend and former colleague) who ran John McCain's 2000 presidential bid. Those prepping a Huntsman run are hoping to fill what they view as a gaping void in the GOP field: a serious but thoughtful conservative who can pull America back to the center right. [Vote now: Who is your pick for the GOP 2012 nomination?]
The book on Huntsman is brief but solid: successful businessman, youngest ambassador in U.S. history (age 29—Singapore), two-term governor of Utah and current ambassador to China. Like Mitt Romney, he is Mormon but doesn’t wear his religion on his sleeve. Politically, he is already being lambasted by the far right for his stances on climate change and same-sex unions during his gubernatorial tenure. Huntsman allies are quick to point out he is a solid fiscal conservative who also happens to be progun and prolife, and he possesses foreign policy credentials the rest of GOP field desperately lacks. Many speculate, however, that his religion and political views may not be as steep a hurdle as the post he currently occupies.
The Obama electoral machine—themselves no political neophytes—recognized the threat of Huntsman so early that they made him an offer he couldn't refuse. That Huntsman accepted was no surprise—he is fluent in Mandarin Chinese and the businessman in him recognized that diplomacy and commerce with China are among the biggest issues facing America in the 21st century. That he resigned to (presumably) run against his old boss makes him either a Brutus or a political genius—depending on who you ask. Primary opponents will likely pepper Huntsman with questions about and accusations of party loyalty: "How could you work for Obama in China?" Huntsman's best retort would acknowledge his service head on: "If you mean dealing directly with our largest trading partner and the globe's only other superpower, the question I ask you is, 'How could I not work for Obama in China?'" [See editorial cartoons about President Obama.]
The primary strategy for Huntsman will, not surprisingly, likely look much like it did for McCain in 2000 and 2008. Stay away from evangelical and agricultural Iowa (a media report today indicated Huntsman intended to do just that), bet the house on New Hampshire, and hope that a Granite State win, coupled with a dwindling field of Republican candidates, propels him into South Carolina, Florida, and Super Tuesday.
If Huntsman is to enter the race, he will need to get to work quickly upon returning from Asia. Many GOP political operatives and, perhaps more importantly, fundraising commitments, have already been carved up amongst the field. Presumably, Weaver and his team are plowing those rows as we speak.
In a political era defined by activist Tea Party populism, Huntsman’s calm and directed demeanor doesn’t place him as the odds-on favorite for the Republican nomination. Huntsman may not have the vicious tongue and damning rhetoric necessary to appease the red meat base this go-around. If the gamble works, however, the only group more afraid of a Huntsman candidacy than the far right would be those mapping out the president’s re-election in Chicago. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the Tea Party.]