Can Jon Huntsman really carve out a path to the GOP nomination?

Jon Huntsman, set to announce his presidential bid on Tuesday, will skip the Iowa caucuses and is little-known in New Hampshire, the first primary state. His biggest hurdle: Mitt Romney.

By , Staff writer

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    Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman speaks at an event hosted by Thomson Reuters in New York, June 14. Huntsman will announce his bid for the White House next Tuesday, bringing a moderate Republican and expert on America's fastest growing competitor into the race to challenge President Barack Obama in 2012.
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Does Jon Huntsman, who will formally enter the crowded presidential field next Tuesday, really have a path to the Republican nomination?

The former Utah governor has hired top-tier staff, including former McCain strategist John Weaver, pollster Whit Ayres, and New Hampshire organizer Paul Collins. He has lined up major donors. And he has his own wealth (though he has said he won’t tap into it).

All he needs is voters.

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Mr. Huntsman has already announced that he’s skipping Iowa, where the straw poll in August and caucuses in early 2012 will give participants their first tests. That means he has to do well – a top-three finish – in the next contest, the New Hampshire primary. But so far Huntsman is little known in the Granite State, and Mitt Romney, the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts, is building a formidable lead.

“It’s going to be a very difficult path” to the nomination for Huntsman, says Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. “He’s going for more moderate voters like you have in New Hampshire. His biggest hurdle is Mitt Romney.”

Mr. Smith’s latest poll of New Hampshire GOP primary voters, taken for the Boston Globe and released June 12, shows Mr. Romney now at 41 percent of likely voters, up from 32 percent in May. Coming in a distant second at 9 percent is former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who has not decided yet whether to run. Huntsman, who has done a little campaigning in the state, is at 3 percent, tied with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

The good news for Huntsman – and all the others besides Romney – is that 76 percent of likely Republican voters say they’re not completely settled in their choice. So Huntsman, or someone else, could conceivably knock Romney off his perch. If Romney himself doesn’t do or say something that damages his candidacy, that could be a tall order.

“Romney is a known commodity here, he’s known and liked,” says Smith. “He has by far the highest favorability of any of the candidates in New Hampshire. He may not be ideal, but they’re happy with him.”

So what’s Huntsman’s approach? First he just needs to introduce himself to voters: Like Romney, he has a business background. He governed Utah as a fiscal conservative but is a moderate on social issues. He supports civil unions, but not same-sex marriage. He is, like Romney, a Chamber of Commerce Republican, not a tea party firebrand. Also like Romney, he is Mormon, but has portrayed himself as less devout.

Ford O’Connell, chairman of the conservative Civic Forum PAC, suggests that Huntsman pitch himself, in so many words, as “Mitt Romney but better. I don’t flip-flop, I don’t hedge.”

Romney switched to an anti-abortion stance four years ago when he ran for president. Earlier this month, he bucked conservative orthodoxy by saying that global warming is happening and that humans are contributing, winning the praise of former Vice President Al Gore.

Huntsman’s big Achilles’ heel is his two-year service in the Obama administration as US ambassador to China, a post he left on April 30. Just as Romney will have to answer to his Massachusetts health-care reform, a model for President Obama’s, so too will Huntsman have to explain his willingness to serve under Mr. Obama. Thus far, the standard response is that he was performing his patriotic duty.

But on health care, Huntsman has a big opening. “He can do what Pawlenty didn’t, which is go after Romney on ‘Obamneycare,’ ” says Dean Lacy, a political scientist at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.

The former Minnesota governor declined multiple opportunities to go after Romney in Monday’s debate. New Hampshire Republicans say that if Pawlenty was worried about going negative against a fellow Republican, he shouldn’t have been. He, and any of the other candidates, can disagree without being disagreeable.

Before Monday’s debate, Huntsman appeared to misstep by declining an invitation to participate. But afterward, it seemed not to matter. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who announced her candidacy in her opening remarks, emerged as the star of the show – a peppy, articulate advocate for conservatism. If Huntsman had taken part, his debut likely would have been overshadowed.

But now Huntsman must get out there and campaign hard. While it’s not late in the game for high-profile Republicans like former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Mr. Giuliani to jump in, it is late for an unknown like Huntsman, who’s been out of the country the past two years. Another Republican who could throw a wrench in the race by entering is Texas Gov. Rick Perry. He has extensive executive experience – 10-1/2 years as governor – and a positive Texas economic story to tell amid national gloom.

If Governor Perry runs, that could suck the oxygen away from others in the race – not just Huntsman, but also Congresswoman Bachmann and Romney. Perry is charismatic, as is Bachmann. Huntsman is personable, but not colorful like the Texan.

Can a Huntsman candidacy survive without winning New Hampshire? “Absolutely,” says Mr. O’Connell. But the next primary, South Carolina, is “probably make or break,” he says. “South Carolina and Florida are where he’s going to have to ratchet up and win, place, or show.”

Huntsman will formally announce his campaign on Tuesday in New Jersey, with the Statue of Liberty as a backdrop. Ronald Reagan in 1980 and another former California governor, Pete Wilson, in 1996, used Lady Liberty as a backdrop to announce their candidacies.

No doubt Huntsman is hoping to follow the Reagan path. But many political observers have suggested an alternative: that Huntsman is using the 2012 race as a dry run for 2016, in the event Obama wins reelection.

“Huntsman may turn out, to use the trite phrase, to be the ‘reasonable, rational adult’ in the campaign, the one without baggage,” says Peter Fenn, a Democratic strategist. “But it’s definitely a long-shot – and a potential play for 2016.”

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