If Huntsman Runs, How Will He Navigate GOP Primaries?

At first, the reports that Jon Huntsman, President Obama’s ambassador to China, was considering a 2012 presidential run seemed far-fetched.

At first, the reports that Jon Huntsman, President Obama’s ambassador to China, was considering a 2012 presidential run seemed far-fetched. But now, with Huntsman having announced plans to resign his post in April, established a PAC and reportedly begun to hire campaign staff, what were only rumors of a presidential bid are looking more concrete.

These recent moves by Huntsman, the former Utah governor and ambassador to Singapore under the first President Bush, has provoked a series of back-handed compliments from Obama and others in his administration. In a joint press conference with Chinese President Hu Jintao last month, Obama said of Huntsman, “I’m sure that him having worked so well with me will be a great asset in any Republican primary.” Then, at last weekend’s Alfalfa Dinner, William Daley, Obama’s new chief of staff, reportedly referred to Huntsman, who was present, as “the Manchurian Candidate” and said, “I want Jon to know that the president has no hard feelings. In fact, he just did an interview with the Tea Party Express saying how integral he has been to the success of the Obama administration.”

Huntsman faces a serious challenge in explaining his association with Obama to the GOP base, though he might be able to spin his departure from the administration as a defection and present himself as uniquely qualified to criticize it due to his former insider status. Furthermore, Huntsman’s experience in China could be a tremendous advantage. In an election cycle that promises to be overwhelmingly focused on domestic financial issues, the economic consequences of our relations with China could be one of the few significant foreign policy issues.

Huntsman, a Mormon, immediately invites comparisons with the nominal frontrunner for the Republican nomination, Mitt Romney, who is also a Mormon and a former governor. Like Romney, Huntsman is likely to face challenges in explaining his moderate positions on environmental regulation, immigration reform and equal marriage rights to the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party.

Matt Mackowiak, a Republican consultant with the Potomac Strategy Group, says that while Huntsman will have to reposition himself to succeed in the primaries, he is not an unqualified candidate. “He is looking at this and thinking the field is wide open—there is a lot of opportunity,” says Mackowiak. “It only hurts the establishment candidates; the biggest member of that group is Romney. Huntsman’s support in Utah and among Mormons would really cut into Romney.”

Mackowiak cautions, however, that the political terrain has changed dramatically since Huntsman has been out of the country and says that it is not clear that the ambassador appreciates the magnitude of the change. In addition, Mackowiak points out, the early states in the nominating process may not be favorable to Huntsman. “He needs to look at the early states and find the place to surprise and overcome expectations,” says Mackowiak. “I suspect either Iowa or New Hampshire. I can’t imagine Romney doesn't look at Huntsman as a threat.”

Mackowiak sees the Republican presidential primaries as rapidly boiling down to a contest between an establishment candidate and a Tea Party candidate. Huntsman and Romney both fall into the establishment category, so only one is likely to “advance to the finals,” as Mackowiak puts it. “This race will not come down to Huntsman versus Romney,” he says.

A number of Republican political consultants have reportedly been tapped to join Huntsman’s campaign. Among them are Fred Davis, a Republican advertising consultant with a series of high-profile projects under his belt; John Weaver, a veteran campaign strategist and one of Sen. John McCain’s senior advisors during the 2008 presidential campaign; and Tom Loeffler, a former congressman and finance co-chair of George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign. A comprehensive list of Huntsman’s prospective political team can be found in this Washington Post report.

Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at nrothman@campaignsandelections.com

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