Scot Lehigh

Huntsman gets ready for his close-up

By Scot Lehigh
Globe Columnist / May 25, 2011

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JON HUNTSMAN has just spent several drizzly days in New Hampshire trying to decide whether he can rain on Mitt Romney’s political parade. So what does the twice-elected former Republican governor of Utah and recently resigned ambassador to China offer that Romney doesn’t? Foreign policy experience, he tells me.

“It is increasingly a dangerous and unpredictable world, and there’s nothing like having been in it, having operated in it, in order to understand what it means for the United States going forward,’’ Huntsman said.

That’s the varnished version. Now for Team Huntsman’s nuts-and-bolts calculation about his political appeal.

“He is the only credible conservative in the field who can actually win the general election,’’ says strategist John Weaver, best known for helping shape John McCain’s first presidential campaign, back during his maverick days.

What about Romney, a self-proclaimed conservative who polls competitively against Obama?

“I said credible,’’ retorted Weaver.

That, to Huntsman’s political huntsmen, means someone who has been consistently pro-life and who as governor did health care reform without an individual mandate. In other words, someone who didn’t engineer legislation that became the model for ObamaCare. To sum it up, then, they see Huntsman as a candidate who can pass (or finesse) the right-wing’s various litmus tests while also appealing to the independents needed to beat Obama in 2012.

Mind you, Huntsman’s audition for that role has already required some rhetorical retrofitting.

His diplomatic stint on behalf of a president absolutely loathed by the GOP’s wild-eyed wingnuts? Simply answering the call of country, something he has done under four of the last five presidents, his team says.

In 2008, a viable Republican could credit the scientific consensus about global warming and support as a remedy a carbon-reducing cap-and-trade system. No longer — and so Huntsman has backed off that stance. He’s also qualified his past support for a $1 trillion stimulus effort. But though he has clearly moved rightward, Huntsman seems to be leaving some wiggle room on the House’s long-term budget framework, which is dear to conservative opinion-leaders but radioactive with mainstream voters.

Watching Huntsman work a room in campaign casual — suede Top-Siders, cords, a flannel shirt (shades of Lamar!), and a jean jacket — the impression was less of folksy authenticity than of a conscious effort at same. That said, he seemed completely at ease in a smoky Laconia VFW hall, a situation that would likely have triggered Romney’s wincingly antic attempts at everyman-dom. Instead, this less straitlaced Mormon played pool and joked easily with habitués fortifying themselves against a dreary Sunday by getting on the outside of a few pints of beer.

Like most early efforts, Huntsman’s test-the-waters speech hovers at the level of platitude. The nation, he says, needs to reduce its spending and debt, create a new industrial revolution, and take bold steps toward energy independence.

Interviewing him later, I noted that two high-profile deficit commissions have declared that it will take both spending cuts and revenue increases to address our deficit and asked if he supported such an approach.

“The revenue side we need to earn through growth,’’ he replied. That is, no — an answer as politically predictable as it is fiscally unfeasible.

But one thing everyone I talked to liked about Huntsman was his call for civility.

“I’m sick and tired of people pointing fingers at each other,’’ he said at a Wolfeboro event. “You can disagree on the issues and you can have spirited debates. But let’s remember we are all Americans at the end of the day.’’

It’s sad that such a sentiment could separate a candidate from his rivals. But in a field that includes long-time character assassin Newt Gingrich and, possibly, aspiring motive-maligner Michele Bachmann, it puts Huntsman on the serious side of the GOP field’s plausible/preposterous divide.

A couple of months ago, Huntsman was an intriguing question mark. Based on the interest his campaign swing has created — and the opportunities presented by an all-but-formed field that still lacks a compelling rival to the front-running Romney — he now looks like a man who could readily find a Granite State foothold.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at