For the entirety of the Republican presidential race to date, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman has been a side story.

Republican presidential candidate and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman speaks at the National Press Club in Washington on Thursday. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

And yet, with the 2012 primary race now shaping up as a fight between former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former House speaker Newt Gingrich, there are some voices within the conservative community urging a second — or, more accurately, a first — look at Huntsman.

Columnist George F. Will, long a pillar of the conservative movement, kicked the Huntsman chatter into high gear with a Dec. 2 piece in which he wrote: “Jon Huntsman inexplicably chose to debut as the Republican for people who rather dislike Republicans, but his program is the most conservative.”

Will went on to praise Huntsman’s support for the budget proposal put forward by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, his desire to privatize Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and his condemnation of the “No Child Left Behind” law.

Will also attacked Romney as a “conservative of convenience” and derided Gingrich as the “least conservative candidate” running.

Erick Erickson, the founder of the Red State blog, penned a scathing indictment of Huntsman back in May — titled, appropriately enough “Why I will not support Jon Huntsman.Ever.” — but, in recent days, has softened that stance considerably.

Erickson now argues that Huntsman is a genuine conservative who has been ill-served by a staff not focused on making that point to voters.

“I have to say I may have to seriously reconsider saying I’d never, ever, never vote for Jon Huntsman,” wrote Erickson on Wednesday. “He is more consistently conservative than either Newt or Romney, more pro-life than either, and a far more competent executive than either.”

The re-examination of Huntsman by some in conservative circles may be less about the former Utah governor and more about the decided lack of electable conservatives in the race.

Neither Romney nor Gingrich have the sort of consistent record in public life that conservatives can rally behind, and those candidates in the field who are more down-the-line conservatives — Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum — have either collapsed or never risen at all.

That leaves Huntsman who, thanks to his own personal wealth and a well-funded super PAC supporting him, has been able to keep afloat while other have slipped beneath the choppy political waters.

Of course, winning the praise of people like Will and Erickson is not the same thing as winning over actual voters. And Huntsman continues to struggle to do that, even in New Hampshire where he is focusing his entire campaign.

In an NBC-Marist College survey of likely New Hampshire voters released earlier this week, Huntsman took 9 percent — well behind Romney (38 percent), Gingrich (23 percent) and Texas Rep. Ron Paul (15 percent).

“Many conservatives find the choice between Romney and Gingrich unsatisfying; but if Newt were to fall, Huntsman would be the last person in the field to gain those conservative voters,” said GOP pollster Jon Lerner.

And, if Huntsman’s numbers in New Hampshire don’t start moving soon, the idea of him as the next big (or even medium) conservative thing will disappear.

“It’s hard to run for president campaigning in one state,” said one senior party strategist granted anonymity to speak candidly. “But if he were to place high in New Hampshire, he would get a second look.”

Gingrich assault now in full swing: The gloves are off, and Newt Gingrich is weathering the first sustained series of attacks of his campaign.

It started early Thursday with a conference call featuring top Romney lieutenants hitting his “off-the-cuff” remarks and his qualifications to be commander in chief.

Then came an ad from Perry that hit both Gingrich and Romney for supporting an individual mandate to carry health insurance.

And a pro-Romney super PAC bought $3.1 million worth of ad time in Iowa, most of which will presumably be spent on ads against Gingrich rather than anti-Obama ads (though the first one hit Obama).

A series of CNN/Time polls from Wednesday showed Gingrich leading by double digits on three of the four earliest states, and his opponents have clearly taken notice.

Anti-Gingrich ad leaked by pro-Romney super PAC: Speaking of which, we noted on Thursday that pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future launched its first ad against Obama rather than Gingrich.

Well it appeared for a spell Thursday night that a Gingrich attack ad wasn’t far behind. That’s because the group posted a damning 60-second ad attacking Gingrich for his “tons of baggage” to its YouTube page.

Alas, it appears someone got ahead of themselves, and the ad was taken down.

The good news: Nothing every really disappears from the internet. So here it is.


Gingrich grows a 13 percent lead on Romney in a new Fox News poll.

Santorum will make a major announcement in Johnston, Iowa, at 7 p.m. eastern time today — apparently the endorsement of Secretary of State Matt Schultz, who as it happens is a Mormon.

Santorum affirms he will participate in the Donald Trump-moderated debate and criticizes those who are skipping it. “Many of my opponents jockeyed to be the first to fly up to New York and use Donald Trump for a photo op and no doubt try and secure an endorsement,” he said. “But when Donald wants to moderate a debate, they refuse to attend. That’s what’s so wrong with politics today: hypocrisy.” Bachmann is skipping the debate, so right now it’s just Gingrich and Santorum.

The Huffington Post’s Sam Stein notes not everyone on Perry’s team was on-board with an ad criticizing Obama’s repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” Meanwhile, the gay Republican group GOProud hits Perry.

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Paul says of Gingrich: “I have to expose him for what he’s been doing all these years.” And with that, Romney’s people smile.

Tea party Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) announced Thursday that he will run in the state’s Democratic-leaning 8th district rather than challenge Rep. Randy Hultgren (R) in a primary. Previously, he planned to challenge Hultgren.


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