Take Mitt Romney, subtract the curate’s egg that is Romneycare, replace it with a few successful conservative reforms, add some serious foreign policy credentials, take away most of his name recognition and positive/negative press, and what do you get?
Answer: Jon Huntsman, Jr.
Okay, that’s a little too simplistic. Huntsman never rescued an Olympiad, and he doesn’t have near as much private-sector experience as Romney does. And, while Jon Huntsman, Sr.’s net worth dwarfs that of Romney, his eldest son is barely a tycoon by Republican standards. Then again, Huntsman’s background as a corporate executive isn’t nearly as ripe for distortion and attack. He’s also 13 years younger than Mitt and, in my opinion, is more charismatic. Maybe the better description would be: imagine a taller, younger Mitch Daniels with foreign policy experience.
Look, I’ll level with y’all. I normally avoid selling people on someone I don’t know personally, but the more I learn about Huntsman, the more bullish on him I become. I started touting him as a great potential candidate for president two years ago, which is why I was so mystified/disappointed when he accepted Obama’s appointment to be Ambassador to China. I remember thinking, What is that job going to consist of for the next four years, other than begging them to buy up more of our T-bills? On the plus side, it bolstered the former Utah governor’s already-impressive foreign policy creds. (In addition to running his family business's overseas operations in the Pacific Rim, he served as U.S. Ambassador to Singapore under the first President Bush and Deputy U.S. Trade Representative in the last administration.)
So, in a situation where I don’t know any of the candidates personally, I evaluate them on their records first, then on other factors, such as each one’s viability as the potential nominee. Huntsman clearly stood out from the rest of the pack on that first criterion, but should he decide to enter the race (as he is widely expected to do), he’ll have a lot of catching up to do before he attains "top-tier" status. He’s registering very little support (anywhere from 1 to 4 percent) in all of the polls I’ve seen. This is almost entirely due to his low name recognition, so we’ll have to see how well he does at introducing himself to most of the American public.
Of course, most of those polls have Sarah Palin, who I’ve repeatedly said will not run for president in 2012, and Rudy Giuliani, who isn’t even close to running, rounding out the top tier. Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain are the only other candidates to draw double-digit support. Once the Republican primary electorate knows that Palin is out, there will be a wide opening for somebody to move up in the polls and rival Romney’s frontrunner status. Trouble is, that opening is already pretty wide, and the “Palin void” – as I’m going to call it – is likely to get jammed up with several candidates making an incremental rise in the polls, rather than one contender who breaks away from the rest and surges into the lead, or at least a statistical dead heat, to close out the year. There’s also the chance that Romney could see a sharp drop in his support, like Giuliani did in '07. Recall that the early 2008 primaries actually turned out better for the GOP than many where expecting, with the race quickly boiling down to a three-way tie between Huckabee, Romney and McCain, while Obama quickly caught up to and overtook Hillary on the Democratic side, throwing what was supposed to be a cakewalk into a prolonged, increasingly nasty fight that lasted until June. (I don’t want to get too far off topic, so let me just cut off this tangent by saying that I don’t expect Gingrich to mount a comeback like McCain did, and that means Romney will become the heir apparent to the Republican presidential nomination in short order.)
A few people on the right are already speaking out against a Huntsman candidacy. Last month on Hannity, Michelle Malkin said she was “not looking for McCain-Lites, like Jon Huntsman,” the folks over at Verum Serum produced this video mocking Huntsman as a RINO ... with an actual rhinoceros. The Conservapedia article on Jon Huntsman, Jr. describes him as “a RINO who was born into an extremely wealthy family in Utah.” When last I checked, that entry had gone unedited since June 4th.
Still, you have to admit that, on paper, Huntsman looks to be a formidable contender. He has a more conservative record than any of the ex-governors currently running. (It helped that he had a cooperative, overwhelmingly Republican state legislature to work with, but so did Tim Pawlenty during his first term, and I defy anyone to compare Pawlenty’s record with Huntsman’s.) He flattened the state’s income tax, taking it from one of the most steeply graduated progressive rate schedules in the country to a flat rate of 5%. He signed legislation protecting unborn children from abortion, red meat for social conservatives. Maybe the most impressive achievement during his governorship was the establishment of the first statewide school voucher system in the U.S. Nothing drives the Left crazy like wildly successful Republican policies that Democrats and their union cronies fought tooth-and-nail. During his tenure, Pew Research Center dubbed Utah the "Best Managed State in America", and last year Forbes Magazine recognized the Beehive State as having the "Best Financial Situation in the Country" and being "America's Best State to Live In." Also, he averred his unequivocal support for the Path to Prosperity before any of the declared Republican candidates did the same. (In fairness, Gary Johnson has advocated some arguably more austere entitlement reforms, as has Michele Bachmann, who voted for the plan when it came before the House, but she was not yet a candidate at that time.)
If Huntsman joins the fray, then I will probably vote for him, but I’ll vote for the Republican in the general election no matter who it is. As for those of you who aren’t sold, let me ask you this: who else can you think of that has Mitt Romney’s managerial finesse, Newt Gingrich’s intellect, Michele Bachmann’s conservative bona fides and Tim Pawlenty’s disarming, down-to-earth demeanor? Before you answer, consider that this should be someone willing to run, with a comparable degree of foreign policy experience. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?