Huntsman is almost entirely unknown to the voting public, having spent the last 18 months as the Obama Administration's ambassador to China and prior to that serving in elected office in one of the least high profile states in the union.
He is, without question, the least defined candidate of any of the Republicans considered serious players in the fight for the GOP nod next year.
But is he a new kind of Republican leader? Or a moderate masquerading as a conservative? The answer to those twin questions is the pivot on which Huntsman’s candidacy currently teeters.
What’s beyond dispute is that almost no one has heard of Huntsman.
In the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, six in ten Republicans didn’t know enough about him to offer an opinion — numbers only slightly better than no-shot former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson (69 percent no opinion). The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll had a similar findings; 64 percent of people said they didn’t know enough about Huntsman to rate him.
That Huntsman is a virtual unknown isn’t terribly surprising as he has never run for president before (like former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney) or been a regular on cable chat shows (like Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann).
What makes Huntsman unique then is that there are two radically different storylines about him that will fight for dominance over the next two or three months.
One narrative is Huntsman as a new sort of leader, a man who has served abroad under Democratic and Republican presidents and, in so doing, has gained the sort of perspective to guide the country through these tough times.
“What we need now is leadership that trusts in our strength,” Huntsman said in his announcement speech on Tuesday. “Leadership that doesn’t promise Washington has all the solutions to our problems, but rather looks to local solutions in our cities, towns and states. Leadership that knows we need more than hope, leadership that knows we need answers.”
That Huntsman is someone who can draw a bright and straight line between his conservative approach to governance and leadership and that of former President Ronald Reagan. That Huntsman is someone who knows that serious times demand serious leaders and won’t play the gotcha game of modern politics. That Huntsman is someone the White House worries about.
The other narrative?
Huntsman as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a man who spent the last two years of his life not just serving President Obama publicly but also praising him privately as a “remarkable leader”.
That Huntsman supported policies like civil unions and cap and trade that mark him as a moderate. That Huntsman has no political base beyond the media. That Huntsman is running to set himself up for a more serious bid in 2016.
The disparity between those two pictures — a new leader for new times or Obama-lite — is more vast for Huntsman than any other candidate in the field.
Huntsman’s challenge between now and Labor Day is to convince voters that the first storyline (or something approximating it) is the accurate one.
Is that a doable? Sure. But remember that Huntsman won’t be operating in a vacuum. President Obama and his political team have already shown their willingness to damn Huntsman with praise and his Republican rivals are ready and waiting with a wealth of opposition research aimed at telling the second storyline.
The fight to define Jon Huntsman began this morning in New Jersey. By the fall, we should know who won it.