But Romney’s real challenge may be deeper than his stance on any issue. “He’s going to be tested not just on health care and on the economy but on character—he’s going to be tested as Mitt Romney,” says GOP strategist Alex Castellanos, who advised Romney in 2008. “Has he matured? Has he grown? Where does he draw the line in the sand that for this we will now stand?”
However Romney eventually answers those questions, Castellanos still sees an opening for a viable alternative. “The Republican who beats Obama is the unobjectionable Republican, the Republican who lets the spotlight drift back to Obama, and who is an authentic grown-up,” he says. “Is that Huntsman? I wonder what’s their strategy. And I don’t have a clue.”
The bafflement over Huntsman’s approach so far is nearly universal. By the time he and his family arrived back in Washington from Beijing at the end of April, the buzz around his hypothetical candidacy was already thrumming. At a moment of fathomless discontent with the extant Republican field—a group consisting, Romney aside, of the hopeless, the witless, the clueless, and the unhinged—Huntsman had the look of a potential savior: a handsome, Harley-riding, tax-cutting western governor with foreign-policy expertise out the wazoo, a family out of a J.Crew catalogue, and a personal net worth starting eight places to the left of the decimal point. Piloted by Weaver, who had assembled a campaign-in-waiting over the previous few months while Huntsman finished out his duty in China, the bid would be keenly nondoctrinaire: a fiscally hawkish, socially tolerant, internationalist, next-generation affair.
Then came the formal announcement of Huntsman’s candidacy on June 21. Two words: major buzzkill. Staged in Liberty State Park in New Jersey—the same venue from which Ronald Reagan launched his general-election campaign in 1980—with the big copper lady as a backdrop, the event featured few supporters, just a few bused-in college kids easily outnumbered by members of the press, and the speech Huntsman delivered was long on ambient thematics but short on any argument about where he proposed to lead the nation. For an address meant to evoke Reagan, the most shocking thing was this: Of its 1,471 words, not one was “conservative.” And, just as troubling to many on the right, it failed to take a single shot at Obama.
“The way you judge an announcement is your message to the conservatives in the party, because conservatives are the driving force in the nomination process,” says Reed, who once advised the Huntsman Corporation and describes himself as a fan of Jon Jr. “Poor Huntsman had no third-party validation by anyone in his party right of center, had a very mixed message, and by the end of the week it was like a Chinese lunch, where you felt like there was nothing in your stomach.”
Huntsman’s uneasiness with affixing a conservative label to himself has been evident from the start. On his first trip to New Hampshire, in late May, he insisted instead on the achingly anodyne “pragmatic problem-solver.” A month later, when he visited New York on a fund-raising swing, I asked who his political heroes were. “Reagan was certainly part of that,” Huntsman said, though he paraphrased Dutch’s ringing anti-statism as a commitment to “making sure government never exceeds boundaries and never gets out of control from a cost standpoint.” He also mentioned Nixon: “I mean, here’s a guy who created the EPA.”
One possible explanation for Huntsman’s less than lusty embrace of conservatism is that, in truth, he isn’t much of conservative. To some, his admiration for the right’s most-abhorred federal agency—along with his past support, now renounced, for cap and trade—is all the proof required. Add to that his support for gay civil unions and, voilà, what we have here is Nelson Rockefeller II.
But the bulk of Huntsman’s record in Utah is conservative to the core. He cut the state’s income tax and effectively eliminated its sales tax on food. He signed a series of bills that severely curtailed reproductive rights—banning outright second-trimester abortions and making late-term ones a second-degree felony. He supported and signed legislation to expand gun rights, including a law that allows drivers to carry loaded firearms in their cars without a concealed-weapons permit.
Another possibility is that, in trying to walk a thin line between conservatism and moderation, Huntsman finds himself tangled up in his shoelaces. In our meeting at his house, I asked about a comment he’d made in 2008 warning the GOP about being perceived as “anti-science” regarding climate change. “All I’m saying is, we ought to show a little respect for science generally,” he answered. So you believe the planet is getting hotter? “I didn’t say that.” I’m asking you. “It’s not what I believe. I read science. Established bodies of scientists have spoken out … and I respect what [they] have to say.” You respect it, or you accept it? “I’m not here to talk about that,” he said, sounding slightly flustered, but then found his footing. “I respect it, and I happen to believe what they’ve concluded.” Phew.