Huntsman’s ties to Obama weigh heavily

Jon Huntsman’s possible bid for the presidency is plagued by two kinds of doubters — those who doubt his ideology and those who doubt his electability. 

To many, the two are connected, as conventional wisdom suggests he’s too moderate to win the Republican nomination.

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The argument dates back to early 2009, when the former Utah governor resigned, shortly after winning a second term, to accept President Obama’s appointment as ambassador to China. His ties to the president have raised eyebrows among prominent, mainstream and ostensibly neutral Republicans.

GOP strategist Karl Rove hasn’t indicated a favorite for the nomination —while in Utah recently he commended Huntsman’s record, but added the former governor’s service in the Obama administration is “an interesting structure he will have to explain.” 

Former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu (R) delivered a much more stinging attack in an interview with Real Clear Politics, saying: “Huntsman won’t play well here. Huntsman won’t play well anywhere, because Huntsman’s only barely a Republican.”

If there’s going to be one consistent attack on Huntsman, it will be on the friends he’s made and the praise he’s earned.

For example, during his time as governor, Huntsman said that even though he favored defining marriage as between a man and woman, he supported civil unions. That sent some social conservatives through the roof, but won accolades from gay-rights groups in Utah.

When Huntsman stepped down as governor, Equality Utah put out a statement lamenting his exit: “Jon Huntsman was a pioneer in saying that you can be a conservative Republican and still stand up for basic rights for all Utahans.”

He also earned kudos from environmentalist groups like the Sierra Club for joining the Western Climate Initiative — a move that outraged some Republicans in the state’s Legislature and prompted a resolution condemning the impact it might have on small businesses.

Indeed, while visiting Utah in March 2009, Republican strategist Mary Matalin remarked to local media: “My advice to him is not to be so praised on the front page of The New York Times as often as he is. It’s not a good flag to wave for conservatives who he will need.”

His most famous pats on the back have come from Obama himself. The president praised Huntsman’s work in his administration, saying that he couldn’t “be happier with his service” and that the former governor had done an “outstanding job.”

But with so many liberal friends, Huntsman doesn’t have a chance, right? Tell that to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who once called the media his “base” and still won a Republican presidential nomination. 

If he runs for president, Huntsman’s campaign will have key members from McCain’s team at the helm, and most importantly, they have the viable option of following their old boss’s New Hampshire-only strategy, which worked in 2008.

McCain mortally wounded former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in the 2008 primary by knocking him off in the Granite State. His maverick streak was appealing to the state’s independents, who are able to vote in the GOP primary. In 2012, with no Democratic race to speak of, that group of New Hampshire voters could come out en masse for the Republican primary, and hypothetically, for Huntsman.

If Huntsman were to knock off Romney in New Hampshire next year, it would do considerable damage to Romney’s claim to inevitability. Further, it could require mainstream Republicans to rethink Romney’s electability. After all, it might be forgivable for a Republican to lose New Hampshire once, but to lose twice could be disastrous for Romney’s chances.

In fact, there’s evidence that some of Huntsman’s rivals are paying close attention to the threat he poses and trying to disqualify him outright. 

Vin Weber, co-chairman of former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s Freedom First PAC, told me: “He is a mystery to everybody I know, including me. … No one can see what his path to the nomination is. Having worked for Barack Obama the past two years is not the best recommendation for the Republican nomination.”

When asked to reply, GOP lobbyist Allen Shofe — who would serve as congressional liaison to a potential Huntsman bid — scoffed at the notion Huntsman is not sufficiently conservative, noting that a 2008 Pew survey called Utah one of the best-managed states in the country.

Shofe added, in a dig at Weber: “He’s also the only prospective candidate with broad foreign policy experience. Some may call that résumé mysterious. I’d call it victorious.”

As usual, New Hampshire might have the first and final say. 

Heinze, the founder of GOP12.com, is a member of staff at The Hill.  Find his column, GOP Presidential Primary, on thehill.com.