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Analysis: Jon Huntsman's Real Challenge

Analysis: Jon Huntsman's Real Challenge

By Scott Conroy - May 24, 2013

To hear Jon Huntsman tell it, his hopes of succeeding in a potential second presidential bid depend largely on one thing: whether enough voters come around to his views on the major issues of the day.

“If [the issues] hit a wall, then you don’t have a future. If they resonate with people, then naturally, you’ll be talked about,” Huntsman told Politico after announcing his formation of a PAC to boost potential allies -- and help pave the way for a 2016 campaign of his own. “If you are to rise politically, it’s based upon real ideas, policies and solutions that connect with our time in history -- or you don’t go anywhere at all.”

The gist of the former Utah governor’s assessment reflects the self-portrait he tried to paint for voters during his abbreviated 2012 presidential campaign: a truth-telling, pragmatic adult in the room, someone who wouldn’t kowtow to the Republican base. The image didn’t sell, and Huntsman quit the race after a disappointing third-place finish in the New Hampshire primary.

It was a take-him-or-leave-him proposition, which essentially said if the Republican Party was ready to adapt and finally get behind a winner, then the onetime U.S. ambassador to China was their man.

The problem with this premise wasn’t that he was a center-right Republican in the age of the Tea Party. It was that the amiable and earnest Huntsman proved simply to be subpar candidate for the nation’s highest office.

Before Huntsman officially launched his White House bid in June 2011, his impending entry into the race widely regarded as one of the biggest factors looming over the GOP field. Even prior to his return to the U.S. from China, the former businessman had lined up an experienced team of operatives in early voting states and was generating significant media coverage as a possible candidate with the financial resources and charisma to upend the entire race.

But from the very day he announced his candidacy with a lackluster speech at Liberty State Park in New Jersey, Huntsman faltered continually.

In that address, he signaled his dispassionate approach to campaigning when he did not even mention the name of the incumbent he was vying to replace, instead merely noting, "I respect the president of the U.S."

In the ensuing months, Huntsman continued to struggle with the transition from diplomat to candidate as he failed to generate momentum in the polls. As a result, he was forced to place all of his bets on winning New Hampshire after initially seeking to run a national campaign.

Once camped out in the Granite State, Huntsman tried hard to replicate John McCain’s 2008 feat of coming back from the political dead by holding as many town hall meetings as he could, while always mentioning to every audience that he was telling it like it was.

The problem was that this endeavor often came across not as “straight talk” but rather a forced effort to fill a perceived niche in the GOP field, which did not play to his strengths. Huntsman, after all, was elected governor of one of the most conservative states in the union and governed as a conservative -- save for notable breaches with Republican orthodoxy on issues like climate change and some social policies.

But on the presidential campaign trail, Huntsman refused to even identify himself as a conservative. It was as if he were trying to walk across an invisible tightrope to an electoral sweet spot that didn’t exist.

Time and again during the seemingly endless series of GOP debates, Huntsman punted on opportunities to challenge front-runner Mitt Romney on his most glaring vulnerabilities and instead seemed intent upon playing it cool, making off-key references to the band Nirvana or breaking into random bursts of Mandarin.

When the moment called for forcefulness, Huntsman frequently came across as wishy-washy -- nothing like the man who delivered the fiery speech to nominate then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin at the 2008 Republican National Convention.

And for a millionaire candidate with the deep rolodex of his billionaire father at his disposal, Huntsman proved to be a surprisingly inept fundraiser.

After burning through more than $4 million in the first two months of his campaign, he had just $327,000 left and was $890,000 in debt by the end of the third quarter in 2011, leaving his candidacy on life support -- just as his rivals were picking up steam.

He made some adjustments and did show moments of life, particularly in the final week before the New Hampshire primary. But his overarching message remained murky, his stump speech soporific, and his ability to convey a sense of urgency nonexistent.

After ending his campaign, Huntsman offered a lukewarm endorsement of Romney but went on to criticize the eventual nominee at several turns. He did not attend the convention, and he increasingly advocated a third-party movement that showed no signs of getting off the ground.

But when Huntsman came out in support of gay marriage earlier this year, he appeared to shift course again, this time by framing the issue as a “conservative cause” and making clear his continued identification with the GOP.

“The party of Lincoln should stand with our best tradition of equality and support full civil marriage for all Americans,” he wrote in The American Conservative. magazine

With several hard-right conservatives likely to compete for the 2016 nomination, there may indeed be room for a viable center-right candidate to compete seriously. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, for example, has already begun taking steps toward filling that very niche.

But for Huntsman, merely encouraging more Republican voters to move closer to him on the issues will not be enough. Instead, his toughest task will be to morph into a less confused, considerably more effective candidate than he was in 2012. 

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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