Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman is many things to many people: the “media’s candidate,” the GOP’s best hope to win moderates in 2012, or a non-factor. Five reasons he might have to wait until 2016. In fact, that might be his plan.
1. The “opportunism” problem – the “opportunist” charge sticks to Jon Huntsman, almost by default. Having accepted the ambassadorship to China, only to quit the job to run against the president who hired him even sticks in the craws of conservatives who hate Barack Obama. Getting past that image will be a challenge. And the White House knows it, which is why David Axelrod — now working outside 1600 PA, for the re-election campaign, has been harping on Huntsman’s support for Obama while in office, and the fact that he never spoke up, if he had differences with the president while repping the U.S. in China. The biggest problem for Huntsman is that to win the nomination, he will have to go pretty hard against Obama, but every time he does, the opportunism question will be raised again, even if in the backs of people’s minds.
2. The “Obama bromance” problem — Inexorably linked to the opportunism issue is Huntsman’s “bromance” problem. Just having worked for the president will cause any Republican to rub the GOP base the wrong way. And when you type “jonhuntsman.com” into a search engine, you get a gushing, veritable love letter Huntsman once wrote to the president. That isn’t helpful with the GOP base, whose white-hot hatred for the president is the single biggest driving force in Republican politics right now, and as Rachel Maddow pointed out on her show last week, it also proves Huntsman’s team didn’t think ahead in terms of Internet strategy, since they failed to buy up the relevant domains.
3. The inauthenticity problem – Huntsman is a conservative, but in the sense that John McCain or former Florida governor Charlie Crist have been (or George H.W. Bush, for that matter.) His stances on global warming (he supported cap and trade policies prior to his recent flip-flop), driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants (he signed a bill into law that granted them) and opposed a border fence, support for an individual mandate for healthcare and gay civil unions, and his eager acceptance of federal stimulus money for his state (in fact, he thought the stim wasn’t big enough), have already pegged him as a RINO to base Republicans — well, the ones who know who he is. Huntsman has tried to counter that by taking a hard like against Obama’s Afghanistan policy, backing away from some of his former stances and supporting the Ryan plan for Medicare. But if you read the comments section under any HotAir story about him, it doesn’t seem to be working. Even coming in a surprise second in that RLC straw poll isn’t helping, since it’s already leaked out that Team Huntsman appears to have paid supporters to show up and vote for him (Huntsman himself missed the event … due to a cold. More on the help he got in New Orleans here.) And being the media’s favorite candidate (he’s the subject of a glowing NYT Magazine profile ahead of his announcement in New York) isn’t going to help build Huntsman’s credibility with the conservative base. In fact, quite the opposite.
4. The duplication problem – Mitt Romney is a former governor … Jon Huntsman is a former governor. Mitt Romney is a Mormon, and Huntsman is too. Romney is a mega-rich son of a privileged family, and so is Huntsman. With Romney occupying much of the space Huntsman wants (reasonable, business-minded conservative who isn’t a right wing nut) there isn’t necessarily space for another version (albeit a less disliked one) of Mitt. Particularly one who essentially is to Romney’s left.
5. The “fill in the blanks” problem. When you’re an unknown candidate, all the media love in the world isn’t going to stop reporters (and your opponents) from digging into your background. Even before he announces, potential negatives are already seeping out regarding Huntsman’s business dealings, including his family’s company selling potential weapons materials to Iran, and making bank on Chinese investments while he was ambassador to that country. Mitt Romney has never been shy about being ruthless with opposition research, and he’s sure to see Huntsman as a threat. So Huntsman should brace himself for in-coming.
The other potential problem for Huntsman, as for Romney, is his Mormonism. A new Gallup poll suggests that about a fifth of Republicans would have a problem supporting a Mormon candidate for president. That’s not a deal breaker, particularly since hard core conservatives are wildly supportive of Mormon TV and radio personality Glenn Beck, who has probably done more than anyone in public life to mainstream adherents of the religion. The Mormon thing is also a reason why running for president now was probably Huntsman’s best gambit if he wants to be a serious contender for the jump ball election in 2016 (when the turn-coat question will be off the table, since Barack Obama won’t be running). Huntsman could not be the vice presidential nominee, to Mitt Romney (because two Mormons would likely be a non-starter) or really to any candidate, since any of them will likely have to choose a candidate with strong religious right and tea party bona fides, or someone who fills the party’s ethnic or gender void. So running is his only means of getting enough name ID to be a successful second chance candidate in 2016.
Related: Huntsman looks good on paper (The Atlantic)
UPDATE: Democrats attack, one day out from the Huntsman announce:
Meanwhile, John Bolton and his mustache are not impressed by Huntsman’s career choices.