Jon Huntsman placed third in last night’s New Hampshire primary. He garnered 17% of the votes, only six points behind runner up Ron Paul and a more daunting 22 behind predictable winner Mitt Romney. This is a big win for him! It is not, however, enough to save him from future losses.
Huntsman failed to take the second slot, but he still broke into the top three, an impressive accomplishment for a lesser-known candidate who was all but written off two weeks ago and one that will give him some momentum in the races ahead.
Now everyone is picking apart Huntsman’s political future. Can he compete in South Carolina, where voters head to the ballot box next week? And what about Florida? Will he be able to split Romney’s support in those states and survive into Nevada or Michigan? Or will he fade from view like so many other candidates who have surged and sputtered?
Most agree Huntsman spent too much time and money in New Hampshire, leaving him in a financial and organizational lurch for the next races. He could inject some of his personal millions into his campaign, a la Romney in 2008, but he’s reluctant to do so. Let’s say he doesn’t, though, and these New Hampshire primary results lead to a sudden influx of donations. Santorum claims he’s taken in an additional $3.5 million since finishing second in Iowa last week, so it’s definitely possible. But this still leaves a gap in on-the-ground infrastructure, and Huntsman’s retail politics — shaking hands at meet and greets — will likely fall short in shoring up the support he needs to rock Romney’s base, particularly because the upcoming states are much larger than New Hampshire.
Alas, it appears — the key word here, appears, because who knows what will happen? — Huntsman’s New Hampshire showing will be a bright spot in an otherwise dismal campaign. And that’s too bad, because he would be the best, or at least most exciting, candidate to face Obama.
Huntsman is a more moderate candidate than Mitt Romney. No, they’re not so different on their economic policies. Both want to protect the rich and corporations, for example. But unlike Romney, Huntsman says he “can live with” abortion in cases of rape, incest and to protect the life of the mother. Romney recently flip-flopped away from that position to one more closely associated with rabidly pro-life conservatives. Further, Huntsman respects state’s rights on medical marijuana — Romney doesn’t — and supports civil unions, an idea Romney also refuses to entertain.
He’s no equality advocate, that’s for sure, but Huntsman is also not a total bigot. His hands-off policies on would make the president’s “evolution” on gay marriage look more cowardly and the president would be forced to be more explicit in his support or opposition to such hot topic issues, something he has so far avoided.
(Ron Paul’s supporters, who have been launching disgustingly racist attacks on surprise new foe Huntsman, will say the same thing about their candidate, but despite Paul beating him last night, Huntsman comes off as more rational and certainly more palatable to Republican insiders who pull the strings, and give the big bucks, behind the scenes.)
Plus, Huntsman has solid foreign policy experience — he was Obama’s ambassador to China, after all, and also George HW Bush’s man in Singapore — and would be able to take Obama to task on almost any international issue during a debate. He would hold his own. If Romney’s past performances are an indication, he would not.
It’s not that he’s a bad debater. In fact, he’s quite good. But Romney has this tendency, or perhaps it is a trait, to get frustrated and tut-tut when losing a debate, leading him to shell out, to quote Newt Gingrich, “pious baloney” that makes him look at too slick and self-righteous.
In debates, as on the trail, Romney’s real problem is that he comes off as cold, detached, awkward and out-of-touch. As Alex Pareene said of Romney’s “I like firing people” remark: “The man is incapable of speaking off-the-cuff without saying something bizarre and tone-deaf.” Though somewhat plastic himself, Huntsman still reads as a legitimately warm, rational and level-headed politician, one who would give Obama, to whom he’s ideologically closer than most of the other GOP candidates, a run for his money.
Despite what everyone says about Romney’s electability, I can definitely see Republicans, moderate Democrats and independents rallying around Huntsman, especially if he found himself a social conservative running mate like John McCain did with Sarah Palin four years ago.
If only he were given the chance, because, again, how great would it be to see Obama and former subordinate Huntsman going toe-to-toe on the debate stage and see Obama actually work for the nomination, rather than giving Romney enough rope to hang himself, which is precisely what would — or, rather, will — happen.