June 22, 2011

Here are the key questions about Jon Huntsman’s presidential candidacy: Is he the American version of David Cameron? And is the Republican Party ready for a Cameron moment?

What does a British prime minister have to do with the 2012 Republican primaries? If Huntsman is lucky, quite a lot. The British Conservative Party chose Cameron as its leader in 2005 because it was sick of losing elections and realized it could no longer present itself as an old, cranky, right-wing party. Cameron was Mr. Nice, Mr. Modern, Mr. Moderate and Mr. New. And now he’s in power.

The Republican Party needs a Cameron-style correction, and the country needs a less doctrinaire, less extreme and less angry GOP. Huntsman is betting that enough people who vote in the primaries believe this, too.

Most striking about his announcement in front of the Statue of Liberty on Tuesday (other than a slew of snafus, including the misspelling of his first name on a batch of press passes) was the extent to which his speech was all about hope and promise. It offered a lot about who Huntsman wants you to think he is and little about what he’d do. With not all that many changes, it could have been a speech delivered by someone announcing a Democratic primary challenge to President Obama.

“We have the power, we have the means, we have the character to astonish the world again by making from adversity a new and better country; this inexhaustible land of promise and opportunity,” he declared. “We’re choosing whether we are to be yesterday’s story or tomorrow’s.”

His slogan might be: Platitudes with a purpose. On the other hand, upbeat rhetoric comes as a relief in a party characterized by ideological rigidity and a reflexive less-government-lower-taxes response to every problem.

And it’s a sign of how rancid our politics have become that the biggest “news” in the speech came in these sentences: “And I respect the president of the United States. He and I have a difference of opinion on how to help a country we both love. But the question each of us wants the voters to answer is who will be the better president; not who’s the better American.” Imagine: It’s borderline-brave for a Republican candidate to declare the president a good American who loves his country.

Does the former Utah governor and Obama-appointed ambassador have a chance? If you judged only from what happened in 2010, you’d say no. Moderates seem to have abandoned Republican primaries to the Obama-despising hard right.

But this ignores an important fact. In many of the Republican presidential primaries, most notably New Hampshire, the rules allow independents to cast ballots. In other influential states (including, for now, South Carolina) Democrats as well as independents can cross over.

In 2008, independents were central to John McCain’s New Hampshire victory over Mitt Romney. Huntsman’s campaign, heavy with former McCain advisers, is counting on history to repeat itself. And independents will play an even larger role in the 2012 Republican contest than they did in 2008, when so many of them were drawn into the Democratic primaries by the lively battle between Obama and Hillary Clinton.

There is also this: In the early going, the conservative vote will be split between the right (Romney and Tim Pawlenty) and the far right (Michele Bachmann and the rest of the field). There might be room for a candidate who is a smidgen closer to the center.

All of which assumes that Huntsman will run a well-organized campaign, and his opening day troubles raise some doubts. He will not be able to be vague on everything, and already he’s endorsed Paul Ryan’s budget. This may buy him some peace on the right, but it’s hardly a moderate’s natural move, and it will force him to answer lots of questions.

And if Cameron is Huntsman’s forerunner, it’s worth recalling that the British leader spent several years working out carefully calibrated policies and proposals. Huntsman has most of this work ahead of him, and he’ll be doing it on the run. The British Conservatives lost three elections before they turned to a modernizer. The GOP isn’t nearly as desperate yet.

So, yes, Huntsman is a long shot. But he’s the only Republican waging something other than a standard-issue conservative campaign and the only one directing most of his energies toward voters who don’t take their cues from Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. This will at least earn him attention. It might even win him some votes.

ejdionne@washpost.com