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Posted at 11:53 AM ET, 02/ 1/2011

The case against Jon Huntsman

By Chris Cillizza

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman may run for president in 2012. Photo by LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images

Yesterday, we made the case for why soon-to-be-former Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman could win the Republican presidential nomination.

Today we argue the opposite -- the case against Huntsman.

(Look for cases for and against all of the potential Republican nominees for president in the coming week and months!)

Obama's ambassador:

There is no figure in American politics right now whom Republican voters distrust and dislike more than President Obama. So, having served in his administration is not an ideal launching pad for a bid for the GOP nomination. That's the position Huntsman currently finds himself in, having spent the better part of the last two years working for Obama in China. "I'm sure that him having worked so well for me will be a great asset in any Republican primary," Obama joked at a recent press conference.

While Huntsman allies insist that serving as an ambassador is not the equivalent of being a member of the Obama Cabinet, it may not matter for many Republican primary voters who view ANY connection to Obama as unpalatable. If Huntsman can't get past "hello" -- kind of the opposite of "you had me at hello" -- with Republican primary voters, the strength of the rest of his resume won't matter much.

The Mormon problem:

Huntsman is a Mormon. (Send the breaking news alert now!) The 2008 candidacy of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney seemed to suggest that being a Mormon complicates drawing in social conservative voters who dominate the Iowa caucus and the South Carolina primary -- two of the first three nominating contests in the 2012 race. Romney spent oodles of time and money in each state but finished a distant second behind former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in Iowa and third in South Carolina.

The simple fact is that the evangelical voters view Mormonism skeptically -- at best. That "otherness" makes it difficult for any Mormon candidate to make significant inroads in that critical community. Adding to that difficulty is that you will now have two Mormons -- Huntsman and Romney -- in the race. It's hard to see the former Utah governor's religion working in his favor.

Moderation in too many things:

While no Republican who gets elected as the governor of Utah can accurately be described as a wholesale moderate, Huntsman has taken several high-profile positions that won't sit well with conservatives within his party. Most notably, he supported civil unions for gay couples and was a public backer of cap-and-trade. Neither position is widely held within the Republican base -- to put it nicely -- and both stances will be used by his opponents to label Huntsman as a "moderate." That amounts to something close to a curse word with the current Republican primary electorate.

Huntsman's rhetorical style doesn't help, either. He once described himself as a "moderating voice" in a 2009 interview with the Deseret News. That conciliatory tone might play well in a general election but not among a GOP primary electorate who wants to take the fight aggressively to Democrats.

Candidate unknown:

Huntsman is an asterisk -- at best -- in any hypothetical 2012 primary field trial heat. Being unknown nationally isn't all that troublesome in presidential politics, but Huntsman faces two unique challenges.

First, this is a field with a large number of well-known candidates -- former House speaker Newt Gingrich, as well as former governors Romney (Mass.), Sarah Palin (Alaska) and Huckabee (Ark.). That means there's a smaller segment of truly undecided voters in search of a candidate. Second, Huntsman will be getting a late start on a bid -- he won't formally resign as ambassador until April. He will have to rush to catch up with other little-known contenders who have been courting early state voters for months now. Breaking through in such a crowded -- and well-known -- field won't be an easy task.

Foreign what?:

In the best of economic times, most Americans have marginal interest in foreign policy. In times of economic hardship -- such as now -- interest in foreign affairs reaches somewhere close to absolute zero. Huntsman's niche in this race is his deep experience and expertise in China. But, if voters are focused almost exclusively on domestic issues -- and the economy in particular -- Huntsman's skill set looks like the wrong fit for the time.

By Chris Cillizza  | February 1, 2011; 11:53 AM ET
Categories:  Case For/Case Against  
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