That could be an uneasy fit in a GOP primary season that is already pushing candidates to the right. So much so that Huntsman’s aides reject the suggestion that he is a moderate — one called it the “M-word” — and describe the former Utah governor as a mainstream conservative with a solid record of antiabortion legislation and tax cuts.
In an up-for-grabs Republican field, Huntsman would enter as a relative newcomer, with a low national profile and a weak presence in the polls. But he couldn’t be dismissed. He is telegenic, has access to a vast family fortune, worked for several presidents and has assembled a team of strategists with national campaign experience — this week he landed a former Mike Huckabee adviser in South Carolina.
Still, Huntsman’s path through the GOP primary would require some airbrushing and some work to build a base of moderate supporters in a party that finds much of its energy and enthusiasm in its conservative wing.
“His strength and his weakness is that he would make a better president than presidential candidate,” said Matthew Burbank, a University of Utah professor of political science who closely watched Huntsman’s tenure as governor. “He was well regarded in Utah, thoughtful, low-key and not prone to scoring political points. And he didn’t always keep the most conservative people happy.”
Huntsman’s path through the primaries would probably be this: Leave the social conservatives to Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann, should they run, and instead focus heavily on Chamber of Commerce Republicans, Democrats and independents in the early states with open primaries.
The main obstacle on that route would be Mitt Romney, a longtime Huntsman rival, who has a strong head start in New Hampshire and is eyeing a similar coalition.
Like Romney, Huntsman is a Mormon, but he has something else in common with the former governor of Massachusetts: He must untangle his record from Obama.
“Huntsman’s got to explain” his ambassadorship, said Ed Rollins, who ran Ronald Reagan’s 1984 campaign and advised Huckabee in 2008.
Huntsman has already been offering an explanation that Rollins also suggested: “Part of it is ‘I served my country. China was always my area of expertise, and it is an area of critical importance.’ ” Rollins added: “He can try it. It’s not easy, but he can try.”
Rollins said Huntsman could have an easier-than-usual time finessing his past positions, given that the GOP field is full of candidates with similar baggage.
Already, Democrats in South Carolina and New Hampshire are trying to weaken Huntsman — signaling that they see him as a threat — by casting him as an Obama loyalist and a Romney-esque flip-flopper.