The just-concluded New Hampshire primary brought former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman to the high-water mark of his presidential campaign. Unfortunately for Huntsman, the tide of Republican politics is about to leave him high and dry.
Most people will likely dismiss Huntsman’s campaign as a quixotic failure. He has run as a centrist, almost a throwback to the socially tolerant Republicans of a generation ago, at a time when most of his fellow party members compete to be labeled the most conservative. He staked his entire campaign on New Hampshire, but he never came close to knocking off Mitt Romney, who lives there part time and was formerly governor of nearby Massachusetts. Huntsman sought the GOP’s embrace almost immediately after leaving President Obama’s administration, in which he served as ambassador to China, even though the entire Republican Party is hell-bent on sending Obama back to Chicago.
In short, Huntsman is the kind of candidate that a moderate Republican would love to elect. The problem is that there are hardly any moderate Republicans. He never had a chance.
Some would probably argue that Huntsman would be an imposing candidate in the general election. I used to think so myself, but I was wrong. In the first place, Huntsman had no chance whatsoever of getting nominated. But even if he had somehow won the nomination, who would have voted for him? Most Democrats would stay with Obama. They would see no need to switch to a Republican who could be labeled “Obama light.” While some Republicans would have backed Huntsman as the lesser of two evils, many would have just stayed home. Moderate voters, especially right-of-center moderates like me, would have liked Huntsman, but you might be able to fit all of us in the stands at your local high school’s football field.
Yet Huntsman’s campaign has not been a waste. For one thing, he put an attractive face on a moderate flavor of Republicanism that the country sorely misses. There are not many Huntsman Republicans in the party today, but in a decade or so, that might change. We needed someone like him to begin that shift.
More importantly, Huntsman’s presence in the crowded early Republican field gave Romney room to be the candidate he really wants to be in 2012 – one who has a realistic chance of winning the White House. Without Huntsman, Romney would have been perceived as the least conservative in the field of Republican candidates, and he would have probably needed to spend time proving his conservative bona fides. This would have hurt Romney in the following general election, assuming Romney made it that far. Having Huntsman in the field made Romney appear closer to the center of the GOP spectrum than he otherwise would have. It even made Romney just one of two Mormons in the race and helped blunt whatever impact the front-runner’s religion would have had otherwise.
So Romney owes thanks to Huntsman for helping the Romney campaign build momentum and a growing sense of inevitability. It is liable to be a long primary campaign because of the way Republican delegates are awarded, but if Romney can hold his own in South Carolina and then perform strongly in Florida, he will emerge from the campaign’s first month of voting in much better shape than most would have predicted. Romney’s campaign appears to be on the way up.
There is nowhere for Huntsman’s campaign to go from here except down. He never had any prospects in South Carolina, and he has barely registered in Florida, whose primary is on Jan. 31. By Groundhog Day, Huntsman’s campaign will almost surely be over, assuming it survives past today.
I doubt we have heard the last of Huntsman, however. At least I hope not. He would make a fine secretary of state in a Romney administration. There is recent precedent for a president to put one of his rivals for the White House in that job. Hillary Clinton has worked out quite nicely.
Huntsman came along too late, or maybe too soon, to be the kind of Republican who wins his party’s nomination for president, but his impact on this presidential race was a lot bigger than his poll numbers and his primary vote might lead us to believe.