Tea Party crasher

The dashing ambassador, standing before Lady Liberty and channeling the beloved Ronald Reagan, announced his candidacy for president of the United States on Tuesday by warning of a sobering turning point for the nation, articulating the import of the moment and declaring his plans to meet it.

“Everything is at stake. This is the hour when we choose our future,” said former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (R) during his dull delivery of a flourish-free, attack-free speech that by all accounts was a snore. The campaign had circulated breathless emails and goofy videos counting down the days to the rollout, raising expectations for an event that in actuality was replete with rookie mistakes and was instantly, roundly mocked.

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To make a challenging campaign even more challenging, Huntsman chose the lonely high road, declaring his candidacy to a conservative Republican primary electorate without the obligatory bashing of President Obama, thus far a staple at candidacy kickoffs in the 2012 GOP field. Huntsman didn’t just refuse to come out swinging at Obama, but chose more kindly words than a liberal Democrat would use in announcing a primary challenge to the president: “I respect the president. He and I have a difference of opinion on how to help the country we both love,” said Huntsman, who recently returned from serving two years as Obama’s ambassador to China.

Huntsman is being discounted by those who conclude politics is too mean a game for nice guys and that the high road is for wimps. But his calm and courtly manner, and the premium he is placing on civility, belie Huntsman’s gutsy and likely boneheaded belief that the Tea Party can’t decide the next election, as it was credited with doing in 2010. He is challenging the prevailing narrative that the GOP has moved too far to the right, and gambling that a moderate Republican who worked for the enemy himself can become the Republican nominee for president. 

In many ways, Huntsman is considered the John McCain candidate in a changed Republican Party few believe would ever nominate the Arizona senator, as it did in 2008. Like McCain, he is pro-gun, pro-life, pro-business and pro-Israel, and is running as a fiscal hawk but has strayed from the orthodoxy on climate change. He also supports civil unions. But McCain hadn’t worked for Obama. Huntsman’s foreign policy experience as envoy to China, and his strong record as a two-term governor in Utah, which the Pew Research Center named the best-managed state, will unlikely be enough to sway conservatives who are dead set against Huntsman. “Jon Huntsman’s record as governor is irrelevant compared to his judgment that it is perfectly OK to plot a campaign for the presidency against the incumbent president of the United States while serving as that president’s ambassador,” wrote Erick Erickson on his conservative Red State blog.

Aware of the headwinds, Huntsman has planned a nearly impossible strategy — knock default front-runner Mitt Romney out of the game by winning the open New Hampshire primary with Democratic and independent votes before heading to South Carolina with tons of money in hopes of convincing establishment Republicans there that rather than Tea Party candidates like Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) or Texas Gov. Rick Perry, he is their best hope to beat President Obama in the general election. Some big names who have endorsed Huntsman — like Mike Campbell, son of the late former Gov. Carroll Campbell in South Carolina, and Bush veteran C. Boyden Gray — have already agreed that he is. 

He isn’t likely to win. But should Huntsman succeed in upending the primary and prove himself right, the Tea Party will be proven wrong

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.



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