The GOP's Cool Uncle

Avoiding war with conservatives, Huntsman has proven an excellent campaigner so far

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HANCOCK, N.H. -- Jon Huntsman arrived in New Hampshire last week touted by much of the national press corps as the Republicans' miracle moderate: The former Utah governor and ambassador to China for President Obama acknowledges global warming, supports civil unions for gays, and has criticized Republicans' obstinacy and extremism -- shocking stuff in a party that's been galloping to the right. Now, he'd like that same party to nominate him to challenge Obama.

This storyline proved irresistible to the media, if not to the residents of New Hampshire. During his five-day swing through the state, Huntsman's events were mobbed by reporters, who often outnumbered actual citizens. Part of the interest stemmed from the anticipated clash with conservatives upset at having a moderate in their midst.

That confrontation never came, and one reason why it didn't is that Huntsman showed himself as much more conservative than advertised. Without disavowing his earlier positions, he staked out territory well to the right of some other candidates, which suggests that he's less concerned with pushing new ideas than in presenting the old ones in a more palatable way.

In an interview with ABC News, Huntsman said pointedly that he would have voted for the Republican House budget, including its controversial plan to privatize Medicare. Since that budget passed, Republicans have begun worrying about the fallout, especially since their candidate in upstate New York lost a special election on Tuesday. Newt Gingrich worried enough to attack the House plan, but saw his candidacy nearly collapse when conservatives exploded in anger. Huntsman recognized the litmus test and passed it.

Although he spent the last two years in China, Huntsman has a keen sense of what animates the conservative base and consistently signaled his desire to address it. Debt and deficits are the biggest issues. Most of his remarks at house parties and restaurants circled back to the theme that these are the paramount national concerns.

On apostasies such as his having worked for Obama and supported cap-and-trade legislation, Huntsman shaded his answers in placatory ways. He emphasized, respectively, his duty to country and his belief that any climate law must take into account the regulatory burden on business and be contingent on sacrifices by other countries. Nothing fitting that description will emerge anytime soon, so Huntsman can join the chorus in criticizing whatever does. That's how a good politician distances himself from a position.

Where Huntsman did prove a radical moderate was in his temperament. Always poised, understated, and unfailingly polite, he declined to make any direct criticisms either of Obama or his Republican opponents. "I think the answers are in the middle,'' he told a small crowd here. "There are enough wars in the world that Republicans don't have to be at war with Democrats.''

After the aural assaults from the likes of Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump, this makes for a startling contrast and also an intriguing gambit. Huntsman's case for why he should be the nominee is essentially that he's an accomplished adult, and behaves like one. "If a Republican is going to beat Obama, they'll have to be bigger, not smaller,'' his chief strategist, John Weaver, told me.

But all lofty sentiments aside, Huntsman is not pious. Throughout his trip he drew sly contrasts with Mitt Romney, the Republican frontrunner, on everything from his availability to the press (Romney is toxically frightened of reporters) to his preferred choice of prey. Appearing at a gun shop in Hooksett, he was asked what he liked to hunt. Without missing a beat, he replied, "Large varmints'' -- a clever dig at Romney, who once awkwardly tried to pass himself off as a lifelong hunter of "small varmints.''

A presidential campaign consists of hundreds, if not thousands, of such appearances -- the gun shop, the restaurant, the small gathering at which television anchors just happen to be lurking on the periphery. Everyone takes for granted that an element of theater is involved. Successful candidates pull it off without overdoing it; the best ones actually seem to enjoy themselves.

Huntsman hasn't been on the trail for long, but it's clear that he excels at this aspect of campaigning. He's gunning to be the "cool uncle'' in the Republican field. Whether that can win him the nomination is anyone's guess. Stressing his conservatism will help. But being the likable guy in a field with which many Republicans are openly dissatisfied may help even more.

Joshua Green writes a weekly column for the Boston Globe.

Image credit: Brian Snyder/Reuters

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