In nearly every story that’s written about now presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, in seemingly every blog post or press mention or cable TV segment, the GOP presidential candidate is described as a “moderate.” He worked for Obama as his ambassador to China. He supports civil unions for gay couples, if not gay marriage. He apparently believes in climate change because “90 percent of scientists say climate change is occurring.”
But look a little deeper, and it’s clear Huntsman is a true conservative in many of the most important ways to GOP voters. As governor of Utah, he was staunchly pro-life. The father of seven supports Paul Ryan’s plan to privatize Medicare. And Huntsman, who has also been an executive in his family’s successful chemicals company, signed the largest tax cut in Utah’s history in 2007 while he was governor.
Sure, his conservative views may be less extreme than some of the candidates who now make up his opponents in the Republican primary race. But the “moderate” label is more likely the result of a calculated effort on the part of further right-wing opponents and concerned Democrats to help sabotage his primary chances.
Or perhaps, it’s a matter of style winning out over substance. As the National Review Institute’s Daniel Allott wisely pointed out over at Politico, Republican voters shouldn’t “confuse Huntsman’s moderate disposition with moderate policy positions.” His temperament may be even-keeled, but his political views aren’t necessarily. In Huntsman’s announcement speech on June 21, he made a point to say he respects his Republican opponents and the president, promising a campaign that would stand out for its civility: “I don’t think you need to run down anyone’s reputation to run for president.” His voice has been called “sotto voce;” his cool-and-cerebral manner has been said to be on par with Obama’s.
Amid a primary race that’s likely to have GOP voters seeking plenty of red meat and a crowd that’s already shown plenty of appetite for bashing the president, Huntsman’s “moderate tone,” as it’s been called, is likely to set him apart. Whether that will help him or hurt him is hard to tell. If he can simply appear measured, collected and civil, he may be able to position himself as the GOP candidate who has the best general election chances against an incumbent president. But if his steady style makes him appear too dispassionate, or too soft on conservative priorities, he’s unlikely to get the votes he needs to make it to November 2012.
For many leaders, style has a way of overshadowing substance. Someone who’s brash, confrontational and bold gets seen as having strategies that are equally so. A leader who’s quiet, reserved and introspective can be seen as too timid to take an organization where it needs to go, even if his or her policies are working well.
Huntsman’s challenge will be to find a way to maintain his laudable effort to run a civil, respectful campaign without sending the wrong message to his party’s most conservative voters. If he’s able to do that and win the nomination—though currently a long shot—his cerebral, moderate style might very well win over plenty of general election voters to the substance of his campaign, too.
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