Jon Huntsman enters GOP race. Is he the one Obama fears most?

His poll numbers are poor. But former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who announced his bid for president Tuesday, may appeal to enough moderate Republicans, independents to make a splash.

Mel Evans/AP
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman waves as he announces his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, Tuesday, June 21, 2011, at Liberty State Park in Jersey City, N.J.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. announced Tuesday that he’ll seek the 2012 Republican nomination for president. In a kickoff speech at Liberty State Park in New Jersey – with the Statue of Liberty towering in the background – he said the US is in danger of becoming a less powerful, less compassionate, less productive nation.

“We can’t accept this, and we won’t,” Mr. Huntsman said.

He added that he would conduct a campaign of civility. He said he respects both President Obama, whom he served as US ambassador to China, and the other GOP contenders.

“I don’t think you need to run down anyone’s reputation to run for president,” Huntsman said.

Does he have any chance to win? After all, Huntsman is a moderate in a party whose voters, especially in primaries, tilt farther to the right. He’s an ex-member of the Obama administration. He’s a Mormon from a Mountain West state with little national clout.

Right now his poll numbers are poor. Only about 1 percent of GOP voters would choose him as the party’s standard bearer at the moment, according to Gallup. That puts him dead last among all announced candidates in Gallup’s rankings.

Furthermore, Huntsman has taken a number of positions that are contrary to Republican orthodoxy. He has expressed support for Mr. Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus package, for instance. As ambassador, he’s praised the current president in a number of letters and speeches – something his GOP rivals will be sure to publicize. He’s endorsed an individual mandate for health insurance, which is a core component of Obama’s health-care reform law.

“He is highly unlikely to get the nomination, absent a strange multicandidate split among conservatives that persists for months,” writes University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato in his Crystal Ball blog.

But Huntsman and his advisers insist that he has an ace up his well-tailored sleeve. They say that he is the candidate Obama fears most.

“This is the guy who can win,” noted the campaign video broadcast in Liberty State Park just prior to Huntsman's announcement.

And Obama aides are reacting to Huntsman’s candidacy as if stung – which might be an indication that the Huntsman camp is right. The administration is complaining that Huntsman began to set up his campaign while still working for the White House, a charge that if true could violate laws against partisan activity by federal workers. Huntsman himself says he was drafted into an effort organized in his absence.

Obama political adviser David Axelrod said Sunday on CNN that he is "surprised" by Huntsman's candidacy, but "certainly I take him seriously."

Huntsman remains little known, so there is a possibility his poll numbers could rise as he begins to campaign in earnest. His chances could turn on the nature of the GOP electorate. Is it really a cohesive mass that opposes all tax hikes, hates "ObamaCare," and supports tea party goals? Or is there a silent plurality of moderates who could join with independents in some open primary states to make Huntsman the surprise of the early nominating season?

That’s certainly possible. With the White House occupied by a president from the other party, Republicans may decide that electability trumps a perceived squishiness on social issues.

According to a June 13 Gallup survey, 50 percent of Republican voters say they would prefer a candidate who can beat Obama, as opposed to one who shared their views on the issues they care most about. That’s the kind of result on which the Huntsman campaign is hanging its hopes.

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