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Jon Huntsman's Last Stand in New Hampshire | The Nation

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Ben Adler

Ben Adler

 The 2012 election, Republican politics and conservative media.

Jon Huntsman's Last Stand in New Hampshire

Concord, NH—Jon Huntsman has decided to completely avoid campaigning in Iowa to focus solely on New Hampshire. The former Utah Governor has just begun a thirteen-day tour of New Hampshire leading up to its January 10 primary. Huntsman will need to finish in the top two in New Hampshire to keep going, but with Gingrich imploding he may get there. As Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post notes, “It’s possible that the New Hampshire vote breaks late. And no one has spent more time than Huntsman courting it.” Don’t forget that hailing from the GOP’s business wing and a wealthy family confers advantages on a candidate. As Cillizza writes, “Huntsman—and his affiliated super PAC—have been spending millions of dollars on television in the Granite State.”

It’s starting to pay off. Huntsman has recently won endorsements from four of the nine New Hampshire newspapers that have endorsed, including the Concord Monitor, the state’s second-largest paper and a more liberal counterpart to the right-wing Union Leader. Recent New Hampshire polls show Huntsman battling with surging Representative Ron Paul (R-TX) for third place.

But why are New Hampshire Republican primary voters more receptive than are Iowa Republicans to Huntsman when Huntsman, as he never tires of pointing out, has actually been more consistently conservative than Gingrich?

The answer is that moderate Republican voters have no other options, except for New Hampshire front-runner Mitt Romney. Social conservatives and cultural reactionaries have a plethora of choices: true believers in Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, and a panderer eager to win them over in Romney. Huntsman and Romney do not offer much substantive moderation, but they offer temperamental moderation. This is especially true of Huntsman, who admits to believing in evolution and eschews Romney’s habit of falsely claiming President Obama is a radical socialist. New Hampshire, as the second-least religious state in the country, according to an enormous Gallup poll, is a state where Huntsman’s secular presentation plays well.

When speaking to an audience in New Hampshire, Huntsman presents a more moderate image of himself than when he goes on Fox News. His demeanor is affable and becalming, and he is more charismatic than he appears in televised debates. He readily brings up his service in the Obama administration and touts his electability. On foreign policy he offers a vision of common sense and restraint, arguing that we no longer need 50,000 troops in Germany to defend Western Europe from a Soviet invasion. Rather than deriding liberal academia and immoral artists as a culture warrior such as Gingrich might, Huntsman touts “the great creative class in America,” and “the best colleges and universities in the world,” as two of the nation’s biggest assets.  

But he also tosses out some lines that could come from the mouth of Rush Limbaugh. He says Ron Paul “doesn’t get the transcendent threat of this decade, which is Iran.” He brags that he is “the only one on the stage who has embraced the Paul Ryan plan.” That would be the Paul Ryan plan to cut taxes on the rich, privatize Medicare and slash spending on programs that protect the poor. Most hilariously, he calls the serially dishonest—but undoubtedly right-wing—Wall Street Journal editorial page “the most respected editorial page in the world.”

It sometimes seems as if Huntsman is trying to be both a moderate and an extreme conservative on the same issue at the same time. Speaking to the Rotary Club in Bow, New Hampshire, Friday morning, Huntsman simultaneously claimed to support the Ryan plan and the deficit reduction plan put out by the president’s commission headed by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles. Simpson-Bowles is considerably more even-handed than Ryan’s plan, as it contains revenue increases and shares cost reductions between defense and domestic spending more equally. The Ryan plan also includes partial privatization of Social Security, a detail Huntsman notably avoids when he runs through his plan to ensure Social Security’s solvency through reductions in benefits.

Both Huntsman and Romney, being Mormons and mainstream Republicans, have obvious reasons to think they cannot perform well among the heavily evangelical and socially conservative Republicans of Iowa. But their strategies, especially Huntsman’s, are highly suspect: if you can only win the primaries in coastal blue states and swing states, can you be a unifying Republican nominee? (The Huntsman campaign says that a strong performance in New Hampshire will boost him in South Carolina and Florida as it did John McCain in 2008).

It’s possible that a mainstream victor in New Hampshire such as Romney or Huntsman will combat a more conservative candidate who wins South Carolina. Newt Gingrich leads in polls in South Carolina and Florida. That could create a GOP that is so badly divided it makes the Obama versus Clinton contest of 2008 look like a love-in. The candidates would be harshly divided by region and cultural identity.

The great irony, though, is that on policy the leading conservative and moderate candidates are not so far apart at all. Huntsman was initially despised by conservative commentators for having served President Obama as ambassador to China and believing in climate change. More recently they have realized that his record and proposals are well to the right of many past Republican standard-bearers: he has been consistently anti–abortion rights and anti–gun control and his economic plan is a compendium of right-wing ideology.

Former New Hampshire Senate President Stewart Lamprey, who has endorsed Huntsman, epitomizes this line of thinking. When asked by The Nation why he supports Huntsman, Lamprey cites his diplomatic manner, rather than moderation on any specific issue. “I’m endorsing him because I think he’s a person who can get along with different groups of people,” says Lamprey. “I think he can get along with overseas heads of state and both Republicans and Democrats.” (Lamprey is under the false impression that the Utah legislature was Democratic during Huntsman’s tenure. It is, in fact, overwhelmingly Republican.) In terms of policy, Lamprey is himself a classic New Hampshire Republican in that he is pro-choice. Romney is his second choice.

Voters at Huntsman’s events in New Hampshire tend to echo Lamprey’s sentiments. One elderly man in the audience at Huntsman’s Wolfeboro town hall began a question by identifying himself as an independent and noting, “I’m not keen about your stance on abortion and the Second Amendment, but you don’t seem like an extremist.”

Former President George H.W. Bush captured this line of thinking when he informally endorsed Romney last week. “I just think he’s mature and reasonable,” said Bush of Romney, “not a bomb-thrower.” In other words, Romney appeals to Bush because he is a temperamental moderate. But ideologically, Romney, like Bush before him, has moved considerably to the right. Gingrich, on the other hand, is no more consistently conservative, but he most certainly is a “bomb-thrower.” Asked about Gingrich, the elder Bush said, “I’m not his biggest advocate.”

The GOP division is more about style than substance. But that doesn’t make it any less bitter.

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