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06.21.11

Huntsman the Dark Horse

Given his credentials as a center-right conservative with executive experience and pro-business inclinations, Obama’s former ambassador to China may be less of a long shot for the GOP nomination than many think, says John Avlon.

It’s so crazy, it just might work.

Jon Huntsman is set to officially announce his run for the presidency today in sight of the Statue of Liberty, where the Gipper kicked off his fall campaign in 1980.

The Reagan homage is intended to remind Republicans that Huntsman comes from the Western conservative tradition, a genial chief executive whose core electoral attribute is supposed to be the ability to win crossover votes.

Huntsman’s entry into the race has the chattering class chattering, even as conservative activists and Republican consultants consider his campaign a nonstarter. There’s just no way, they say, that a former Obama ambassador who intends to make civility a strategic centerpiece of his campaign can compete in an increasingly conservative populist GOP.

There’s no question it’s a long shot. But it is also true that even in the heady opening weeks of the Obama administration, Huntsman was regarded as the Republican that Barack & Co. least wanted to run against in 2012. That’s why they came up with the bright idea of bringing Huntsman into the fold as China ambassador. It didn’t stick.

Huntsman is the latest embodiment of the classic Catch-22 of partisan politics—the candidate most likely to win a general election has the hardest time winning the nomination. The qualities that make them so competitive in the fall alienate the base.

But there is a scenario in which Huntsman could win the nomination. It is, again, a long-shot—but here’s the crystal ball logic with a state-by-state tick-tock.

Huntsman comes from the Western conservative tradition of a genial chief executive with the ability to win crossover votes.

Huntsman will likely skip Iowa entirely. But if someone along the lines of Michele Bachmann wins the caucus because of their conservative populist appeals, the center-right will be strengthened in reaction.

Right now, Mitt Romney’s commanding lead in the polls is a reflection of the fact that he has the center-right all to himself in a crowded far-right field. He is essentially the default frontrunner.  Huntsman’s entry will create competition for that demographic, boosted by the lack of enthusiasm for Romney.

In New Hampshire, with independents making up 42 percent of registered voters—and all eligible to vote in the state’s open primary—the center-right will actually be an electoral force. If Romney fails to win New Hampshire—with Huntsman eating into his vote (aided by a not-impossible-to-imagine McCain endorsement)—his campaign will be functionally over. Barring another candidate’s entry into the race (Rudy or Ryan), Huntsman will be the sole representative of the center-right, with the added ability to self-fund in a crunch.

Then comes South Carolina. Conventional wisdom says this is a social conservative playground—but the reality is more complex. South Carolina does have a strong evangelical community, but the state does not have party registration, meaning the primaries are functionally open. Moreover, the retirees and quality-of-life-seekers who have moved to the Palmetto State over the past decade could find this charismatic, pro-business, fiscal conservative appealing. Huntsman radiates the kind of Low Country ease that characterized Mark Sanford before he hiked the Appalachian trail via Argentina.

But the most compelling reason that Huntsman isn’t toast in South Carolina comes courtesy of an old-school endorsement—that of Mark Campbell, the son of the beloved former Republican governor, Carroll Campbell. This endorsement means a lot in South Carolina and could help blunt the edge among social conservatives—Campbell was the state co-chair for Mike Huckabee last time around.  And the Campbell family endorsement has proven pivotal in the past for every GOP nominee between Reagan and W.

Then there’s Florida—the final key pre-Super Tuesday primary state, where the former Utah governor has not-so-subtly set up his campaign headquarters. Even the decision to base the HQ in Orlando has strategic implications, the city sitting at the heart of the I-4 corridor, the swing districts that decided the electoral fate of the state.  Florida also might be the best fit for Huntsman on the primary map—and the Sunshine State helpfully has the most delegates up to that point.

Nevada currently has its primary scheduled the same day as Florida—and is neighbor to Utah, with a surprisingly large LDS population. Again, advantage Huntsman. After that the race goes national on Super Tuesday.

There’s an additional reason that Huntsman might not be endlessly attacked from the right—Glenn Beck’s publicly declared love for his dad.

During Beck’s August 2010 “Restoring Honor” rally on the Washington mall, Jon Huntsman Sr. was awarded the “Badge of Merit” for his charitable good works and praised for “literally embodying the virtues of hope, faith and charity”.

The honoree did not attend the event, and his son was serving in China at the time, but he sent a message of thanks to the crowd in which he said “Glenn Beck is one of America’s most trusted and honored citizens.” All of which does not mean that Glenn Beck will endorse John Huntsman Jr., but this public exchange of praise—as well as their shared faith—will make it much more difficult for Beck to demonize Huntsman as a RINO-candidate. Huntsman’ surprise second-place finish in the New Orleans’ straw poll last weekend indicates that the impulse might not be isolated.

A week is a long time in politics, and Jon Huntsman is just announcing his campaign. His buzz is more curiosity than commitment. Apart from a full-throated endorsement of the Ryan plan he is a cipher on policy specifics who has not yet been subjected to serious campaign scrutiny. But a responsible center-right candidate with executive experience, pro-business credentials and an internationalist bent should not be dismissed—and he seems like a breath of fresh air compared with the current conservative crop.