Jon Huntsman: The Anti-Romney From The Electability Wing of the GOP

As businessman and GOP presidential contender Herman Cain, who leads in many national and state polls, deals with sexual harassment allegations from over a decade ago and questions about whether he has a campaign organization that is ready for prime time, speculation about who will emerge as the next anti-Mitt Romney candidate has begun in earnest.

Because nearly 70 percent of Republicans have been opposed to Romney, the GOP primary has been framed as a choice between Romney and an anti-Romney, the establishment and the Tea Party, or the head (electability) and the heart (conviction). 

And while Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Cain and Newt Gingrich have all contended to be the top anti-Romney candidate, Romney has gone unchallenged on his side of the bracket.

Republican voters tend to favor Romney not because they are passionate about him but because they view him as the least offensive generic Republican who may have the best chance of defeating President Barack Obama. But if voters are willing to put aside ideological and rhetorical purity in favor of electability, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman may be the candidate who is more conservative and electable than Romney, and he should be discussed as the anti-Romney challenger from the “electability” wing of the Republican party. 

Of course, one reason why Huntsman is not discussed as the “anti-Romney” is because his anemic poll numbers have often rendered him irrelevant in any discussion about GOP contenders to date. 

And this is why Huntsman has gone all in in New Hampshire, hoping a win in the Granite State will allow him to inherit Romney’s path to the GOP nomination, which consists of being the last candidate standing while the more conservative candidates divide the more conservative vote.

“We’re going to surprise the marketplace in New Hampshire,” said Huntsman at a town hall event in South Carolina last week.

Though Huntsman has trailed Romney by more than 20 points in every New Hampshire tracking poll, his optimism may stem from his knowledge that voters in New Hampshire historically break toward a candidate late in the race. In a recent CNN/Opinion Research New Hampshire poll, for instance, 68 percent of those polled were open to changing their mind before the state’s first-in-the-nation primary. 

“Every metric in New Hampshire shows that the preponderance of voters there are still undecided,” Huntsman spokesman Tim Miller told HUMAN EVENTS. “Gov. Romney has had six years to close the deal there, and he hasn’t done it.”

Added Miller: “As we get closer to election day and voters tune in, Jon Huntsman will be the clear alternative in New Hampshire. [Huntsman is] someone that can both beat Romney and Obama, and matches the independent conservative spirit of the state.”

Miller said a win in New Hampshire would “upend the media environment” and put Huntsman on the radar screen of voters, and “bring in the dollars needed to get his message out” and allow him to take advantage of his organization in Florida and South Carolina “that are ready to fire the engines following success in New Hampshire.” 

Romney’s inconsistencies on everything from abortion to climate change worry Republicans that Obama would frame him as an inauthentic politician lacking a core set of beliefs much in the same way George W. Bush painted John Kerry in the 2004 election. Others think Romney may be the only candidate in the field that would allow Obama to be the populist in a general election. 

On the other hand, Huntsman’s authenticity would be a strength against Obama that Romney cannot claim to have. 

“Obama’s operation will absolutely eviscerate Gov. Romney with his own words, that’s why his nomination is not a recipe for Republican success,” Miller said. 

Yet, in the most recent national survey of Republicans conducted by CNN in October, 41 percent of Republicans thought Romney had the best chance of beating Obama compared to 24 percent for Cain and 12 percent for Perry. Huntsman barely registered.

But voters often factor in a candidate’s perceived strength at the time the poll is taken in answering the electability question. For example, in September, 42 percent in the same CNN survey thought Perry had the best chance of defeating Obama compared to 26 percent for Romney and three percent for Cain. 

Team Huntsman is hoping that if Huntsman gets traction, Huntsman’s conservative record in Utah on fiscal matters, such as signing the largest tax cut in history and making taxes flatter, pro-life issues, school vouchers, and second amendment issues will reaffirm some of his conservative credentials among those who may not be familiar with them, which will be essential for a candidate who currently lags behind the other candidates in polls that measure a candidate’s “positive intensity” score or highly favorable numbers. 

In fact, as number cruncher Nate Silver postulated, Huntsman’s moderate ideological positioning makes him best suited to defeat Obama if election 2012 is going to be an election more reflective of what political scientists refer to as the “median voter model” in which “only the ideological positioning of the candidates” matters to voters and the candidate whose position is closest to the center wins. 

Of course, one downside to a “median voter model” election is a candidate like Huntsman would be susceptible to a challenge from the right via a third party candidacy. 

Miller, though, said that because Republicans are focused mainly on defeating Obama  and Huntsman is his opposite on nearly every key issue,  “there is no reason to undermine that effort with an independent bid.” 

“Governor Huntsman’s agenda is to dramatically reform the tax code, repeal Obamacare and Dodd-Frank, balance the budget with serious entitlement reform, and get serious about energy independence,’ Miller said. “This will appeal to the tea party, mainstream Republicans, independents, and the old Reagan Democrats.” 

When asked if Huntsman would call himself a conservative before a Republican, Miller said: “Governor Huntsman isn’t big on labels, but unlike most of his opponents he is a life-long Republican and he has a record of conservative governance to run on.”

Huntsman is not going to lead the Tea Party wing of the GOP, but if Republican primary voters are willing to allow some ideological and rhetorical leeway in order to defeat Obama, Huntsman may be the more conservative and electable option than Romney.