Huntsman, Coolest in Republican Race, Eyes 2012: Jonathan Alter

The big news these days is who isn’t running for president. Without Mike Huckabee and Donald Trump, the Republican contest will be less colorful, of course, but also even more unsettled than it has been for the last few months. That leaves room for another Mormon governor and businessman.

Last week I had a chat with Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor who resigned as the Obama administration’s ambassador to China last month. It was one of only a couple of conversations he’s had with a reporter since he dipped his toe in the water. And it left me convinced that, though not yet registering in polls, he may be the big new Republican face of 2012.

Huckabee’s departure leaves a big “likeability gap” in the Republican field. It sure isn’t going to be filled by Newt Gingrich, whose smiles for David Gregory on “Meet the Press” last week hardly erased his “Gingrich who stole Christmas” impression with voters. The other candidate waiting offstage is Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, the latest crush of establishment Republicans and deficit hawks, despite his record presiding over the most profligate spending in the history of the Republic as George W. Bush’s budget director.

The two other plausible nominees, Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty, are hardly running away with the likeability primary. Huckabee memorably noted in 2008 that Romney would remind voters of the boss who laid them off. Pawlenty isn’t actively unlikeable, but his charm seems written in invisible ink. Discounting the nerd-chic of Ron Paul, Huntsman will be the coolest guy in the race.

Mormon Rock

Huntsman played the keyboard in a rock band as a teenager, speaks fluent Mandarin (learned while on his Mormon mission), loves Motocross and has adopted children from China and India. He wears his Mormonism lightly (a daughter is about to be married outside the faith), looks sharp in his bomber jacket and has an attractive wife. He has executive experience at his family’s chemical company. It doesn’t hurt that he seems smart, has millions in the bank (his father invented the “clamshell” container that Big Macs were once packaged in) and has already hired top-flight political operatives like John Weaver, who ran John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign. Most important, from Huntsman’s perspective, is that he boasts a conservatism-that- works record in Utah.

Line of Attack

Huntsman intends to directly attack the health-care law that Romney passed in Massachusetts, which later became a model for President Obama’s efforts in Washington. He will try to sell the health-insurance plan he implemented in Utah, without any mandates, as the right plan at the right time for the American right. The idea is to use health care against Romney the way Obama used the Iraq war against Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primaries: as a way of convincing the base that he’s closer to them on their No. 1 issue. Repeal of Obamacare is the only stance that unites all Republicans, and the candidate who masters that message has an inside track to the nomination.

Huntsman’s liabilities are also considerable. As a Mormon, he won’t have much appeal among the evangelicals who make up about a third of Republican primary voters (whose support is likely to be split between Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann). He was receptive to federal stimulus dollars as governor, and once supported a cap-and-trade plan to reduce greenhouse gases in Western states (which he has since distanced himself from). Reporters haven’t yet begun to pore over his personal life in detail.

Working for Obama

Huntsman’s biggest stumbling block, of course, is that he served in the Obama administration, which for the birthers, haters and assorted nasties who make up a sizeable chunk of the Republican base will be a deal-breaker. When I asked Huntsman about the effusive letters of praise he wrote to Obama and to former President Bill Clinton -- he called Obama “a remarkable leader” and praised Clinton’s “brilliant analysis of world events” -- he dismissed them as “thank you notes.”

Aides say that Huntsman’s tie to the Obama administration is only a problem until people hear that he also served as an ambassador under George H. W. Bush (to Singapore) and worked for the second President Bush and for Ronald Reagan. They think that his foreign policy credentials will serve him well through the debates.

We’ll see. Huntsman will have to walk a fine line between criticizing Obama’s foreign policy and seeming ungrateful for his appointment (though that might not be a problem with primary voters). He will give a speech soon laying out his worldview, but he hinted to me that he didn’t think Obama had been tough enough in stressing “values” over “perceived interests.”

China Question

On the question of China’s rise, he thinks that while the Chinese will pass the U.S. in “sheer output” in the next couple of decades to become the largest economy in the world, it will be 75 to 100 years before they catch up technologically and beat the U.S. on what he considers the more relevant economic statistic of per-capita GDP.

My sense is that in the cattle calls to come Huntsman will get the blue ribbon from the press and from Republicans looking for the strongest candidate in a general election against Obama. In the past, neither of these factors have had much impact on Republican primary voters. But it’s worth remembering that just a few years before becoming the 2008 Republican nominee, John McCain had a voting record so Democratic that he nearly accepted entreaties to switch parties. And being the press’s darling certainly never hurt McCain.

Huntsman’s fate, then, may be less tied to his personal image than to how Republicans make sense of what may be the most wide-open field since Wendell Willkie won their nomination in 1940.

(Jonathan Alter, author of “The Promise: President Obama, Year One,” is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Jonathan Alter at alterjonathan@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net

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