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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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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