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06.17.11

The GOP's New 2012 Game Changer

He’s presidential-looking, he’s cool, his reformist views are catnip to moderates—Jon Huntsman just shot past Tim Pawlenty to No. 2 on Mark McKinnon’s top 10 ranking of Republican hopefuls.

Central casting called—they have the perfect GOP candidate: Jon Huntsman Jr. He looks as presidential as Mitt Romney, but with a bit of a cool, rebel appeal. And an added dose of electability.

Huntsman is pro-life, pro-guns, and pro-business, solid conservative positions that earned him an 80 percent approval rating after serving five years as governor of Utah, a deeply red state. And he is a reformer, having successfully pushed through a statewide flat tax, business incentives, and private-school vouchers. But he also is open to centrist ideas, supporting civil unions and in-state tuition for illegal immigrants. And he’s danced perilously close to a health-care mandate and a cap-and-trade scheme. For a GOP candidate, all are near-heretical stands, which make him attractive to moderates and win him interest and favor from the media.

Although he has served under four presidents, including most recently as the U.S. ambassador to China under President Obama, Huntsman is relatively unknown nationally. He hopes to change all that when he officially enters the race Tuesday at a campaign event at Liberty State Park, in New Jersey, within the welcoming verdigris gaze of the Statue of Liberty, reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s iconic campaign kickoff in 1980—open-collar white shirt, windswept hair, and American flags on sailboats in the harbor.

Can he win the Republican nomination in 2012? His political instincts so far have been right. Skipping early campaigning in the more socially conservative Iowa, Huntsman is instead focusing his resources on New Hampshire and Florida, where he is basing his campaign. Although some pundits were surprised that he chose to not participate in the debate this week, in hindsight, it was the right choice. His first introduction to the nation may have been overshadowed by the crisp and stellar debut of Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.

New Hampshire primaries are open to voters from any party; with little excitement on the Democratic side this time around, more folks will participate in the GOP primary. Forty-four percent of them are self-identified independents, and Huntsman may win as the man in the middle, pulling those voters away from the leader, former Massachusetts Gov. Romney, while Bachmann or Texas Gov. Rick Perry peel voters away to Romney’s right.

Huntsman has more foreign-policy experience than any of the GOP candidates, and arguably more than Obama. He speaks fluent Mandarin and Taiwanese Hokkien. And his most recent assignment as ambassador to China was an early offensive move intended by the administration to blunt any presidential aspirations, but the “taint” of serving the nation in the role under Obama is overstated, and overplayed by Team Obama. Huntsman also served as staff assistant under Reagan, as ambassador to Singapore under George H.W. Bush, and as a deputy trade ambassador under George W. Bush.

His political instincts so far have been correct. Not participating in the GOP debate this week was the right choice—he would have been overshadowed by Bachmann.

With the country focused on economic issues, can Huntsman parlay his foreign-policy experience into a plus? If he can make the logical connection between the two issues, in his own words: “The single best improvement we could make [to our relationship with China] would happen right here at home. Which is getting our house in order. We sit diminished and discounted at the negotiating table, and everybody knows it.”

Huntsman is laid-back and civil, even in his criticism of Obama: “[He] is trying to pick up the pieces of our economy and make sense of a world grown more complex and confusing.” But don’t let the calm exterior fool you. A tax-cutting, jobs-growing Mormon with seven kids, who rides motocross and who dropped out of high school to play in a band, he is a man of roiling contrasts and strong principles.

It’s an unconventional time. Voters are looking for someone different—maybe someone like Jon Hunstman.

The GOP Top 10:

1. Mitt Romney: Solidifies front-runner status with strong debate performance.

2. Jon Huntsman: Move over, Tim Pawlenty. Here comes the new No. 2.

3. Michele Bachman: Great debut and performance in first debate. She’s a contendah.

4. Rick Perry: Warming up his engines.

5. Tim Pawlenty: Weak debate performance. Voters want strong leaders. Fading fast.

6. Newt Gingrich: He’s in it, but not really to win it. Loses staff, just along for the ride now.

7. Ron Paul: The constitutional crank playing true to form.

8. Herman Cain: The man can stem wind. But looks wobbly on foreign policy and Muslim question.

9. Rick Santorum: Needs to strike in Iowa but likely to get swamped by Bachmann, Perry, and Cain.

10. Buddy Roemer and Gary Johnson: Give these former governors a break and let ’em in the debates.