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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Huntsman’s Scenario More of a Guantlet

Jon Huntsman announced his campaign for the presidency today, which should enliven the campaign for the GOP nomination and possibly set the stage for deepening ideological divisions within his party.
Matt Bai’s portrait of Huntsman in the Sunday New York Times magazine will not cause a lot of concern in the Obama campaign. True, Huntsman won his re-election (Utah governorship) with 78 percent of the vote and Obama ’08 campaign manager David Plouffe said the possibility of a Huntsman campaign back then made him a “wee bit queasy.”
But Bai’s profile of Huntsman reveals an oddly detached and dispassionate candidate with an upper-class pedigree, as heir to his father’s chemical industry fortune. His mother is the daughter of an LDS apostle. Money won’t be a problem for Huntsman, who expects to raise additional dough from wealthy Republicans who have some moderate ‘social issue’ views, place a premium on lowering the capital gains tax, but can’t get their heads around the Romney thing.
Huntsman’s bet for the Republican nomination has to be that the tea party candidates will cancel each other out, and there will be enough Romney-phobes to give him a real shot. This scenario presupposes more charisma than Huntsman may have, although NYT columnist Frank Rich’s description of Romney as “an otherwordly visitor from an Aqua Velva commercial, circa 1985” is not so far off the mark.
It also assumes, not without some evidence, that Pawlenty may be a non-starter. But there’s always the chance that Huntsman’s campaign might boomerang and divide what’s left of the GOP’s moderate conservatives, end Romney’s hopes and make possible the election of one of the more conservative candidates.
Assuming that Huntsman somehow grabs the GOP nod, he will have a tough trek, make that a gauntlet-run, in the general election if the economy improves significantly in the next year. Without an economic axe to grind, Huntsman’s case weakens considerably and he will likely have some ‘splainin’ to do regarding his increasingly sharp attacks against the guy who gave him his most important job. Hard to see how he gets through it without being branded in the minds of many “character voters” as a disloyal opportunist/hypocrite. That baggage isn’t going to magically disappear.
Then there is the flip-flopping, as described by Wayne Holland, chairman of the Utah Democratic party, in Nia-Malika Henderson’s article on Huntsman’s entry in today’s WaPo:

The Jon Huntsman I know supported Barack Obama and President Obama’s recovery act, but said it should have been larger…The Jon Huntsman I know worked with Democrats to pass the cap-and-trade program and said at the time it was the only alternative to a carbon tax. The Jon Huntsman I know signed into law a health insure exchange and proposed an individual mandate for Utah. It now appears that has all changed.

If the economy tanks further, Huntsman would have a decent chance, as would just about any GOP nominee, north of the lowest tier. Even then, however, Huntsman’s lack of any discernible connection to everyday working people could be a formidable obstacle.
JFK proved that brainy rich guys can connect with the pivotal white working-class. But it does require an ability to project warmth, a good sense of humor, compassion and maybe a bit of a track record. I’m not seeing it in Huntsman’s persona, as viewed through Bai’s profile. Huntsman’s working-class cultural creds are pretty thin — apparently his favorite sports are motocross and bungee-jumping. His handlers and ad-makers will have a tough assignment making him seem like a ‘regular guy.’ All in all, it seems fair to say that the GOP field has not been impressively strengthened by Huntsman’s entry.

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