The 2012 Republican presidential primary race is, to say the least, shaping up oddly. Some of the candidates everyone used to assume were going to run (Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee) seem to be taking a pass. Some utterly unelectable candidates everyone used to assume were just toying with a run to keep their names in the news (Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich) now look like they're actually running (Newt's announcement, says the AP, is coming on Wednesday). The guy everyone thought was the logical nominee (Mitt Romney) has apparently become so convinced that Republicans hate him, and the more of him they see the less they like, that he's taken to running a stealth campaign.
So if you're a Republican with national ambitions, is there a good reason not to run this year? That's probably what Jon Huntsman, former Utah governor and former ambassador to China, is thinking.
It's true that as a relative moderate, he seems absurdly out of step with the current Republican moment. But that may be just the key to his candidacy. There's a market niche that could reasonably be exploited here, that of the reasonable, smart, accomplished Republican who has a chance in hell at beating Barack Obama.
Granted, the Republicans who find that combination appealing are not a majority of the primary electorate. But let's look at the rest of the field. Tim Pawlenty is becoming this year's Mitt Romney (Pawlenty has reversed himself on climate change and torture, among other things, to satisfy the party's right wing, and has taken to growling, shouting, and putting on a fake Southern accent to show Tea Partiers he's sufficiently rabid to win their support). Mitt Romney is also this year's Mitt Romney, seeing as he remains Mitt Romney. There are not one but two libertarian candidates in the race (Ron Paul and Gary Johnson), who favor things like drug legalization, making them unacceptable to all but a hardy band of Republicans. Then you've got long shots like Rick Santorum and Herman Cain camped out on the far right.
In other words, there's nothing even resembling a moderate in the field. Even if moderates are a limited portion of the GOP electorate, Huntsman stands to get the support of almost all of them, leaving the other candidates to split the conservative vote eight or 10 ways. The best thing for him would be if he trudges along while the conservative candidates fight with each other, and in the end, it comes down to him and someone like Bachmann or Gingrich, whom everyone acknowledges has no chance of winning the general election.
Is that scenario likely? Maybe not. But it could happen. Which is probably why he and his advisers are getting ready to roll the dice. And what's the worst that could happen? He's only 51 years old. A reasonable 2012 run could set him up for 2016, when the blowout loss of 2012 makes Republicans more willing to consider a moderate who can win.
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