So Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, Jr. is emerging as the choice of the Great Mentioners, the latest of which is Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, who admits that Huntsman seems to understand (gasp!) the real challenges facing the Republican Party. In another time, you'd wonder whether Plouffe was trying to build Huntsman up in order to avoid a tougher opponent, but Plouffe, while occasionally cagey, isn't that cynical. Huntsman has made the rounds as of late. He's in Washington, D.C. fairly often and has touched base the heavy hitters of the political journalism world. He's traveled to South Carolina and gotten friendly with one of the state's political power brokers, Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Henry McMaster. Most recently, Huntsman spent some time in Michigan, where his stance on civil unions -- he's for 'em -- drew lots of attention, and some ire. Because so many Republican primary voters don't care for gay people, and because these Republicans are more important to the make-up of the GOP primary electorate than, say, activist liberals are to the Democratic electorate, the political gadfly's first instinct is to dismiss the Huntsman case outright.
How in the heck can he possibly compete in Iowa? That's always the first instinct. It's a bad instinct, because Republican presidential nominees often do not win Iowa -- McCain and Dole and Bush (Sr.) and Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon (and Ike, Dewey and Wendell Willkie.)
I'm speculating here about facts not yet in evidence -- the 2012 GOP calendar -- but we do know one thing: independents won't be distracted by a Democratic race in New Hampshire. There will be a big enough pool of pro-gay civil union moderate voters who are happy to make Huntsman their Mormon -- assuming that another Mormon, Mitt Romney, is also in the race and is by 2012 a dedicated social conservative.
Why mention Mormonism? South Carolina. A divided field, though, could be to any candidate's benefit, and depending upon the press dynamics, a win by a Huntsman rival there might not mean much.
Given the king-making role Florida played in 2008, the state will almost certainly schedule its primary in January of 2012. Huntsman could win Florida. He could do well in Michigan.... you see where this is heading.
IF -- and a big IF -- 2012 turns out to be a referendum primary for the GOP, Huntsman could do very well, perhaps as a bridge candidate. He has plenty of conservative credentials and he has just as many reformist credentials. (He told me that his biggest policy goal for 2009 is to make sure every child in his state had health insurance.) He's not very compelling on the stump, and he needs something other than his stance on gay rights to distinguish himself from other Republican governors with solid resumes.
Quietly, Huntsman is lining up commitments from some of the GOP's top fundraisers, and he is popular among his fellow Republican governors. He has not decided whether he'll run yet, but if he does, he probably ought to be taken seriously... at least until the Republican primary calendar tells us otherwise.
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is a former contributing editor at The Atlantic