To remain a competitive contender for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, Jon Huntsman needs to beat “market expectations,” as he puts it, in the early primary state of New Hampshire on Tuesday where he has campaigned the most intensely of any of the right’s candidates in recent months.
Utah’s previous governor skipped last week’s Iowa caucuses where former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, the most socially conservative candidate in the race, rivaled frontrunner Mitt Romney for first place. Huntsman doesn’t just challenge Romney’s conservative credentials but also tries to portray himself as a more electable candidate to run against Barack Obama in November.
Democrats and voters registered as independent are able to participate in next week’s New Hampshire contest which Huntsman hopes will boost his election prospects and give him the momentum necessary to expand his campaign into Florida and Nevada which vote January 31 and February 4 respectively.
Recent polls have Huntsman, Santorum and former House speaker Newt Gingrich fighting for third place in New Hampshire, behind Romney, who enjoys a 20 point lead, and libertarian congressman Ron Paul, who appeals to roughly 20 percent of voters in the “live free or die” state.
After running as a center-right candidate and failing to gain traction, Huntsman now argues that he’s the real small-government conservative in the race. “I think I’m the only one on the stage who’s embraced the Ryan plan,” he said Sunday morning, referring to Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan’s plan to privatize health care for seniors.
In Utah, Huntsman cut the state income tax to help fuel business growth which, by 2007, had brought its jobless rate down to an unprecedented 2.3 percent. The resulting surge in revenue allowed the state to avoid making painful spending cuts during the downturn but make investments instead which boosted Huntsman’s approval rating above 90 percent in one of the most conservative parts of the country.
Asked during an NBC News debate in Concord, New Hampshire how his plan to reduce government spending to 19 percent of gross domestic product would incur “real pain” on Americans, Huntsman mentioned defense and Social Security. He advocates withdrawal from Afghanistan and supports means testing for Social Security which would deny wealthy Americans public pension coverage.
“I don’t want to be nation building in Southwest Asia when this nation is in such need of repair,” Huntsman said. He estimated that a residual force of some 10,000 personnel would suffice to carry out special operations and counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan but doesn’t believe a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy is vital to American interests.
Asking the night before during a debate hosted by ABC News why he would make a better commander-in-chief than his fellow contenders, Huntsman argued that he best understands “the complex national-security implications that we will face going forward with what is, we all know, the most complex and challenging relationship of the twenty-first century, that of China.”
As President Barack Obama’s ambassador in Beijing for one and a half year and ambassador to Singapore under George H.W. Bush, Huntsman should have a keener understanding of America’s position in East Asia than the other presidential candidates.
“I believe this nation is looking for not only leadership but leadership that can be trusted,” Huntsman added. He argues that the United States suffer not only from an economic deficit but a trust deficit. “We must find not just a commander-in-chief, not just a president, not just a visionary, but we’ve got find somebody who can reform Congress,” he said. “We’ve got to close the revolving door that’s corrupted Washington.”
Huntsman’s plans for congressional term limits and Wall Street reform have drawn applause but it’s an argument similar to one former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney tries to make when he touts his business record. “This, for me, politics, is not a career,” he said Sunday morning. “I think we ought to have people to go Washington and serve the people of their nation and go home. I’d like to see term limits in Washington,” too.