How to Think About Jon Huntsman

Even before declaring his presidential candidacy this morning, the Jon Huntsman boomlet was well underway. The latest evidence: Matt Bai's profile of him in this weekend's New York Times Magazine, which gives a good sense of Huntsman and what he's about. A three-part Esquire profile is also rumored to be in the works. (My own much shorter take here.)

At this early stage, Huntsman's candidacy is primarily being driven by the media--he barely registers in the polls--and one reason for all the attention is the challenge he's expected to pose to the frontrunner, Mitt Romney. From a press perspective, the story is irresistible. Both are handsome and wealthy business executives who hail from prominent Mormon families and succeeded as governors; it's also sometimes said that both are moderates, although that's a slippery and malleable term in today's Republican circles. The insider thinking is that Huntsman and Romney are vying for the same space and only one of them can occupy it.

That's all true, up to a point. But I've come to believe that emphasizing the similarities between the candidates does a disservice to the reader because Huntsman and Romney are trying to do two very different things--and are, in fact, quite dissimilar, although each is maneuvering in the direction of the other.

Huntsman was initially touted by the press as the great moderate hope who believes in global warming, civil unions for gays, and speaking out against Republican extremists. But while he's proved to be moderate in temperament, Huntsman appears to be making every effort to appeal to the right wing, by, for instance, endorsing Paul Ryan's budget. He's also subordinated the global warming stuff, emphasizing the reasons not to act--the regulatory burden, the lack of international cooperation--over the ones that initially provoked him. If Huntsman is to have any shot at the nomination, he'll need to win over a lot of conservatives.

For the past few weeks, Romney has often seemed to be speaking to an entirely different audience. He has pointedly not embraced the Ryan budget and its controversial plan to privatize Medicare. He has spoken out in support of the idea of expanding health care coverage (at least at the state level). And he even acknowledged that global warming is real and possibly caused by human beings, which alienated conservative taste makers like Rush Limbaugh. With a commanding lead in early state polls, Romney appears to be moderating his image for the general electorate. (Or "measuring the drapes," if you work for one of his opponents.)

So at least for now, the two Mormon candidates are pursuing different strategies and focusing on different audiences. That's worth bearing in mind as you read about the "moderate" Jon Huntsman.