David Axelrod may have been hoping to give Jon Huntsman the proverbial kiss of death when he spoke to the Washington Post of the former Utah governor’s praise for President Obama while he served as the administration’s man in Beijing the last two years. The president’s top political advisor said Huntsman “was quite complimentary of what the president was doing” while serving the administration in Beijing and was “willing to buck the tide of his own party” on a number of points.
The fact that Huntsman worked for Obama was already enough of a handicap as he competes for the votes of Republicans who largely despise the president and all his administration has done. If he is perceived as a loyal servant of Obama, it’s hard to imagine how he can win the GOP nomination.
The strategy of damning Huntsman with praise fits in neatly with the idea that the former ambassador to China is the most formidable Republican candidate in November because of his supposedly moderate stances. But that idea, like the notion that Republicans hate Huntsman because of his recently concluded diplomatic gig, is a strictly inside-the-beltway piece of conventional wisdom that may not have much to do with actual voter sentiment.
Even in a GOP field replete with candidates with low name recognition, Huntsman is a virtual nonentity as far as the electorate is concerned. Though he was highly regarded as a governor and earned good marks as ambassador on human rights issues even from administration critics, Huntsman was unknown to most Republicans or voters of any party until his return from China and the start of the buzz about his plans to run for president.
There’s good news and bad news in that fact for the prospective candidate. The good news is that even though he will be forced to spend a lot of time and money on introducing himself to the voters, it also means that he has the opportunity of defining himself for the voters without having the handicap of them being burdened by too much prior knowledge. The bad news is that he is going to struggle to be heard in a field where even a candidate with a low profile like Tim Pawlenty has greater name recognition.
Though having worked for Obama won’t be an asset in a Republican primary, Huntsman still has the chance to establish a political identity on his own terms. If he impresses GOP voters with what he has to say, his time in Beijing won’t be a major hindrance. After all, being an ambassador did not require Huntsman to endorse Obamacare or the stimulus, positions that really would be a kiss of death. And while Axelrod’s quotes will be thrown in Huntsman’s face if he becomes a serious contender, it will be just as easy for the candidate to dismiss them as irrelevant and to characterize his administration job as honorable and apolitical public service.
Until we see Huntsman on the stump, the preconceptions that he is either some sort of general election paragon or a man with no future as a national Republican candidate remain inventions of the Washington establishment. Until he gets out and starts mixing it up in the battleground states, these theories are mere talk.