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Can Huntsman Compete as a Centrist Republican in 2012

While not the best known candidate, Jon Huntsman brings an intriguing resume that can make him a surprise success.
By Amiel Ungar
First Publish: 5/9/2011, 6:04 PM / Last Update: 5/10/2011, 1:05 AM

Former Utah governor and US ambassador to Beijing, Jon Huntsman, looks like a definite Republican candidate for the presidency. Huntsman will have to overcome the problem of name recognition, but to go by his resume as well as his commencement address at the University of  South Carolina, the new candidate has some intangibles that might make him a successful candidate.

Currently the Republican field boasts candidates both declared and undeclared who have gubernatorial experience but are having to take a crash course in foreign policy or whose positions are unknown. This would include former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and, if he changes his mind about not running, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

Then there are people like John Bolton who have made their name in foreign policy but cannot claim to have executive experience. Ffinally there are the Donald Trumps, who are strong on business experience, but untested in the political arena.

Huntsman can check off  all the boxes. Although he inherited the company from his family he was a businessman.  He ran a small state – Utah, but kept it solvent, which is better than a lot of statehouses. He comes off a stint as ambassador or to China, a country that for many Americans represents their country's major foreign policy challenge and he speaks fluent Mandarin to boot.

Huntsman will be starting the campaign a year older than Presidents Obama. He has a background as a rock band leader, bringing back memories of candidate Bill Clinton and his saxophone. In other words, he may be able to compete for the youth vote.

Judging from his University of Southern Carolina commencement address, he is a fine orator and can therefore stay in the ring with Obama better than other Republican candidates. He has a sense of humor-- take for example this passage from the commencement address.

The real secret about diplomats is that we are trained to say something when there is nothing to say, and to say nothing when there is something to say. We are forever locked between a cliché and an indiscretion. So, even though my immunity has been revoked, I thought I’d err on the side of indiscretion today and try to find a few honest words about choices ahead and finding a successful pathway in life.

From the commencement address one can see that he will use the Chinese experience to give the American people confidence that the US can stand up to China economically and, more importantly, in the field of morality. His hero was a Chinese woman, Ms. Ni, "one physically broken woman with a passion and belief in her cause – up against a government, with the most formidable security apparatus in the world, that was determined to keep her silent."

This type of passage evokes memories of Reagan. Huntsman has seven children, two of whom are adopted –one Chinese and one Indian daughter. This will accredit him as a family man and, to use an Obama term, a post racial candidate.

In addition to the problem of becoming a household word, another question mark about Huntsman is whether, given the polarization of the American political system, he can win in the role of a McCain Republican, in other words a centrist.

He has already been denigrated as a RINO – Republican in name only. He actually had to explain why he was willing to assume the senior diplomatic post under Obama. "While we might not all be of one party, we are all part of one nation.”

He might get away with the ambassadorship; his tolerant attitude to nonstandard marriages and support as governor for ecology may arouse suspicions in the Republican ideological base.