A Huntsman Moment?

PETERBOROUGH, N.H. — Since all things seem possible in the Republican presidential contest, is there another turn coming that could benefit Jon Huntsman?

That would be the former Utah governor polling nationally at 3.2 percent, according to Wednesday’s Real Clear Politics average of national polls, slightly behind Rick Santorum. Huntsman is occasionally touted by the sort of commentators who would never go near a Republican primary ballot box; they like his reasonable, genial and intelligent tone. Many conservatives, on the other hand, see those traits as the marks of a dreaded liberalism.

Yet if Huntsman runs dead last nationally among the major candidates, he is behind only Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul in New Hampshire, and was in double digits in two recent polls. Huntsman has done so many events in this state that he and Michael Levoff, his New Hampshire communications director, disagree on the exact count. Before Huntsman spoke at a Rotary Club meeting at the Monadnock Country Club here on Monday, Levoff said it was the governor’s 121st event; in his speech, Huntsman said it was his 119th.

A Republican contest that is so discombobulated must have another spectacular twist or two in it, and a pair of voters who joined several dozen people in the cozy, knotty-pine clubhouse embodied the precise combination that Huntsman will need to pull off a Granite State miracle.

George Kurzon, an 82-year-old retired physician, said his priority this year is to keep the country from “going down the road to socialism.” Many voters who feel that way have shifted toward Gingrich, but Kurzon thinks Huntsman is the one Republican who might actually win the election. “He’s qualified, he’s been a governor, he’s been an ambassador,” Kurzon said. “He’s talking in a rational way about solving our problems. He doesn’t sound like an ideologue.”

Nearby was Gordon Hale, a retired accountant and the kind of independent Huntsman needs to cajole into picking up a Republican ballot on Jan. 10. New Hampshire allows those registered as independents to vote in either party primary, which helped John McCain win here in 2000 and again in 2008. Hale supported Barack Obama in the 2008 election and will “probably” do so again next year. But he expects to vote in the Republican primary for Huntsman “because he’s the only one who makes any sense to me, and he’d give Obama some good competition.”

Two voters do not a trend make, but the logic behind their decision-making is the logic of a Huntsman breakthrough: He needs Republicans to see him as a winner (and a real conservative), and independents to view him as the sane guy in a preposterous crowd (and a moderate). As Romney and Gingrich step up their assaults on each other, voters might get sick of both of them. Huntsman makes the rounds reminding them there’s another option.

Here’s the underlying secret of the campaign: Jon Huntsman is far more conservative than either moderates or conservatives realize. Yes, President Obama appointed him as ambassador to China, and when Dennis Allen, the Peterborough Rotary’s president-elect, introduced Huntsman, he mentioned that his earlier diplomatic posts had come from George H.W. and George W. Bush, while omitting the name of the president who gave him the China job.

But especially on the core economic issues, Huntsman is solidly right-of-center. In his talk here, he noted that he “embraced” Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget as “a very aggressive approach” to the deficit. He endorsed term limits for members of Congress, promised “no more bailouts,” condemned “Obamacare” and the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul, and criticized the “regulatory barriers” to business. He also boasted of praise he has won from The Wall Street’s Journal’s editorial page, the arbiter of conservative economic orthodoxy these days. Yet there was just enough heterodoxy for the moderates. Huntsman wants to break up the biggest banks and put an end to the idea of “too big to fail.” He wants our troops out of Afghanistan. And he spoke longingly of national unity, mourning that the country was “more divided than at any point in history.”

For the moment, few outside Huntsman’s circle would make a $10,000 bet on his winning the nomination. His chances hang on moderates still liking his demeanor and conservatives realizing, as his wife Mary Kaye told one voter here, that “he’s the most consistently conservative of all of them.” It’s a bank shot, but in a campaign that has seen Herman Cain’s crowds cheering a trio of 9s, stranger things have already happened.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.

(c) 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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