Can the Moderate Huntsman Succeed in a Red-Meat Era?

It's a tough time for centrists in the GOP, and the former Utah governor will have to overcome significant weaknesses if he's to win the party's presidential nomination

Jon Huntsman - Scott Audette Reuters - banner.jpg

For a candidate barely registering in the polls, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman has generated an awful lot of attention. His message of civility, appeal to independents, and rock-band-member biography have made him an irresistible figure for the media. But so far, the debate has centered on whether a candidate who has served in the Obama administration and taken centrist stands on immigration, civil unions, and energy policy has a shot in Republican primaries that are increasingly dominated by hard-line conservatives.

That debate misses the point, and ultimately fails to explain why his campaign has failed to catch fire so far. The Republican Party has nominated plenty of moderates in the post-Reagan era, including George H.W. Bush (1988), Bob Dole (1996) and John McCain (2008). One could even argue that the current GOP front-runner, Mitt Romney, fits in that category.

There's nothing in Huntsman's record or resume that would make it impossible for him to win the Republican nomination. All candidates have serious vulnerabilities in the primaries, including his rivals.

The challenge is how a candidate overcomes such weaknesses. Those who adapt and grow tend to do well. But all signs suggest that Huntsman has not only failed to highlight his conservative bona fides, he is doubling down on his vulnerabilities.

The biggest problem with Huntsman's campaign isn't his centrist ideology; it's his campaign's tactics. Huntsman has decided to ignore the fundamental rule of politics--a campaign is about contrasting your record against those of your opponents. Instead of taking on President Obama, he's praised Obama's good intentions and avoided outlining many areas of disagreement. He's run to the left of the president on Afghanistan, calling for faster and deeper troop withdrawals. And at a time when voters are hungry for solutions, he offered a platitude-filled kickoff speech that barely touched on the economic problems that Americans want solved.

This is a Republican Party that wants head-on confrontation with Obama, but Huntsman is selling détente and civility. It's an electorate that wants a candidate who identifies with the struggles that Americans are dealing with. Instead, his introductory campaign video focused on his love of motocross--an image of recreation at a time when the country is facing major economic pain. Huntsman is also courting independents in the New Hampshire primary, whom he assumes are in the mold of Michael Bloomberg but are as disaffected as any group out there. (In the latest July Granite State poll, 61 percent of independents said the nation was headed in the wrong direction, with a 47 percent plurality disapproving of Obama.)

Huntsman has a good story to tell. He governed Utah at a time of economic prosperity, lowered taxes, and opposed abortion rights. He was one of the first presidential candidates to come out squarely for Paul Ryan's entitlement reforms--which have become close to conservative orthodoxy these days. His apostasy is hardly more egregious than that of George W. Bush, who championed comprehensive immigration reform, downplayed social issues, and acknowledged climate change. Like Huntsman, Bush even expressed his distaste for "nation building" in the 2000 presidential race, though he clearly shifted his views after the 9/11 attacks.

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Josh Kraushaar is the political editor for National Journal.

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