Nothing, ever – nothing – is certain in politics. A candidate or officeholder can literally go from hero to zero in the length of time it takes to send a tweet or jackknife a trailer behind the SUV you have apparently just stolen. There are no sure things. Nothing is ever pre-determined in politics. The game must be played, the votes cast and counted. Hero to zero avoided.
So, with the acknowledgement that Barack Obama shouldn’t, and by most accounts isn’t, taking a second term for granted next year, the president must have taken some cold comfort from the fact that, until yesterday, the likely GOP field confronting him was not comprised of political world or incumbent beaters.
The guy that I’m betting the White House fears the most formally got into the race yesterday. Jon Huntsman, the former Governor of Utah and U.S. Ambassador to China, is all that the rest of the field isn’t – moderate, interesting, possessed of humor and good looks and projecting something like charisma. Every four years, the GOP looks for a candidate that reminds us of Ronald Reagan. Huntsman comes pretty close. He even chose Reagan’s 1980 backdrop, the Statue of Liberty, to launch his campaign.
The question, of course, is whether the “moderate” Huntsman is too middle-of-the-road to compete effectively for the generally very conservative voters in Republican primaries in places like New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida. That bell has yet to ring. Stay tuned.
However here’s why, I think, Obama should fear Jon Huntsman and why conservative GOP primary voters ought to give the guy a hard first, second and third look.
1) Huntsman can credibly make the case that he is a pro-business, fiscal conservative. As governor of Utah he has a jobs record to tout. Under his watch Utah did smart and responsible things with public investments and still maintained an attractive climate for business. The economy and jobs will, after all, be what the 2012 election is all about.
2) Huntsman’s more-moderate-than-most positions on many social issues – he said yesterday he would “respect” New York’s gay marriage law - will diminish him in the eyes of many GOP voters, but not among many independents and genuine moderates in both parties. He’s walking a fine line here, but if he can walk it he may be able to appeal across the ideological divide on social issues. Reagan did the same for his two terms.
3) Huntsman’s personality, his smile, charm and rugged good looks might just help make him a contender. While the other Mormon in the race, Mitt Romney, looks like the little figure of a groom on the top of an old fashioned wedding cake, Huntsman moves, talks and acts like he might actually have a personality. (Romney’s too earnest by half style has already been laughed at on Saturday Night Live.) I will always maintain that a great percentage of voters size up the candidates not on the basis of their policy positions, but on the gut-level reaction to what they see in the individual. Do they seem genuine? Are they optimistic? Are they likeable? On that basis alone, Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale never had a chance against Reagan and John McCain was a born loser against Obama. Don’t discount the “I like the looks of this guy” as a real factor.
4) Huntsman does not appear to start the campaign with a potentially fatal flaw. That may be damning the guy with faint praise, but he doesn’t start with Romney’s health care baggage around his neck or Gingrich’s staff defections or Ron Paul’s nuttiness or Michelle Bachman’s shrillness or Tim Pawlenty’s lack of charisma and message. In short, much like Obama in 2008, Huntsman is a blank canvas onto which interested voters can sketch their perfect candidate. Even conceding Huntsman lack of name recognition, no one else in the GOP field starts with the advantage of not being almost completely defined before the race even begins.
I could be back here in six months writing about the presidential campaign flame out of the former governor of Utah and, if so, I’ll eat the crow. But, I’m betting if Barack Obama didn’t sleep well last night it wasn’t the Afghan draw down he was tossing and turning over, it was Jon Huntsman as his opponent a year from now.