On Sunday, once Dave Weigel of Slate had learned that Jon Huntsman would on Monday end his presidential run and endorse Mitt Romney, he asserted of the GOP, "Divided as they are, ready as they are to let Mitt Romney win the nomination anyway, Republicans in 2012 had no interest in a compromise candidate who could speak Democratic parseltongue."
Never having believed myself that Huntsman had any chance to capture the GOP nomination, I should nod in agreement. Yet....
The former governor of Utah did have a shot, albeit a long one, at the nomination. He dropped out six days after running third in the one state in which he competed- and in all likelihood would have remained in competition if he had finished second, which would have given him at least a small boost going into South Carolina. Serving as an ambassador in the Obama administration, what Steve Kornacki refers to as Huntsman's "original sin," was hardly resume-enhancing to the GOP's populist base. Yet, Kornack notes Huntsman's
overall platform was far more conservative and tactically-driven than many realized. His economic program, for instance, was nothing short of radical — massive reductions for the super-wealthy and for corporations — and seemed tailor-made to win approval from the GOP’s supply-side wing. He also provided the most unqualified endorsement of Rep. Paul Ryan’s plan to end Medicare as it now exists, was just as insistent as every other candidate that healthcare reform and the Dodd-Frank bank reform law be repealed, and sang the standard conservative tune on abortion, gay marriage, gun control and most other hot-button issues. Occasionally, he’d throw his media and non-Republican fans a bone, but he could be just as quick to reverse himself when he sensed an opportunity to make inroads with the right.
It wasn’t hard to see the strategy that was at work: Ride the “sane” image to a breakthrough showing in finicky, independent-friendly New Hampshire, then be positioned to win over suddenly curious national conservatives by saying, “Have you actually looked at my platform — I’m not the moderate you’ve heard I am.”
If Huntsman had "placed" in New Hampshire, he would have been risen to Gingrich's equal as a competitor to front-runner Romney. The ego-driven, ego-consumed former House Speaker (whom George Will called "the least conservative candidate"), as well as Rick Perry, has been slammed for criticism of Mitt Romney's job cremation stint with Bain Capital. Huntsman, though, probably would have been acceptable to the Repub corporate base. As early as September, his economic agenda had gotten the nod from what is arguably the center of GOP corporatism, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which termed it "as impressive as any to date in the GOP Presidential field." While Huntsman's foray into Mandarin Chinese at the last debate may have contributed to his loss in New Hampshire, it served as a reminder to the party's corporate base that he had its interests at heart.
This is no small matter. The GOP establishment has proven widely distrustful of Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker's old colleagues having led the way. Rick Santorum, as someone committed to the cultural causes which make the plutocrats uncomfortable, might not have been tolerated. And Ron Paul, who makes defense contractors shudder, is broadly despised.
Certainly, among all the candidates (including the departed Michele Bachmann) who have vied for the party's nomination, Romney has been, as expected, the favorite of the party establishment. But arguably, the second most acceptable (or next-to-last unfavorable) candidate would have been Jon Huntsman. The voice of the electorate- or at least that small portion voting in the early caucuses and primaries- wouldn't let it happen. The game plan, however, really was more plausible than it now seems in light of his early departure.