Is Huntsman the Next Reagan, or the Next Wilson?

Is Huntsman the Next Reagan, or the Next Wilson?

By Sean Trende - June 21, 2011

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman is declaring his candidacy for the presidency today, at New Jersey's Liberty State Park. The obvious intent is to draw parallels to Ronald Reagan's 1980 candidacy; the eventual 40th president launched his general election campaign there on Labor Day 1980. But there's another Reagan parallel here, one that focuses on the Gipper's middle name, rather than his last name.

In 1995, California Gov. Pete Wilson sought to invoke the Reagan ethos by announcing his short-lived run for president from Liberty State Park. As a governor of the same state that Reagan had presided over, Wilson was supposedly well-positioned to win, and many observers thought that his strong stance on illegal immigration and tough-on-crime reputation gave him plenty of "red meat" for the Republican base. Of course, Wilson's bid went nowhere, and he, along with Arlen Specter, dropped out long before the first votes were counted in 1996. His liberal views on social issues such as abortion made him anathema to the GOP base.

Huntsman isn't as far outside of the GOP mainstream as Wilson, but he also lacks the national following that animated the Reagan campaign. His announcement speech was not a great way to start his campaign; right now it is being widely panned by pundits on the left and right. It certainly suggests that he has a lot of work to do to generate the energy that accompanied Reagan's campaign. There's a lot of poker to be played, and if the cards are dealt the right way, I do think Huntsman can win. But it's a long, bumpy road from Liberty Park to Tampa, Fla., and he's probably going to have to step up his game a notch if he doesn't want to end up in the same place Pete Wilson ended up.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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