Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, right, appearing at the White House with President Obama to accept nomination as U.S. ambassador to China.
Over the weekend, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, a moderate Republican, accepted an invitation to serve as U.S. ambassador to China. The move was depicted by some as a political coup by President Obama, a sly bit of sleight-of-hand that removed the popular Huntsman as a challenger in the 2012 presidential campaign.
That’s a vast overreading of both the motivation behind the pick and its political impact. Huntsman is perfect for the job of ambassador to China, and the job is perfect for Huntsman. He speaks Mandarin, has lived in China as a Mormon missionary and aligns with the Obama administration on issues such as economic development and climate change.
According to a political adviser, Huntsman “had not made a decision to run for president, but he had made a decision to prepare to run. We were probably a month away from announcing the formation of a political action committee, so we were pretty far down the road.”
Even given that, I doubt that either Obama or Huntsman saw the 2012 election cycle as favorable for the Utah governor.
For one thing, Mitt Romney, Huntsman’s fellow Mormon, has already staked first claim for political and financial support from that community.
Huntsman’s bigger problem is that I like what I’ve read about him. He has been an effective governor on issues such as transportation reform, he supports civil unions for gay couples, and he even led the effort to liberalize liquor laws in Mormon-dominated Utah, a stark contrast with a certain Georgia governor.
And if I like Huntsman, the GOP’s current primary electorate must hate him. In 2012, the party faithful will be in no mood to consider anybody but a movement conservative, especially after putting up a more moderate John McCain and losing badly. If that conservative candidate is defeated in 2012, as I think likely, it could force an internal fight over the party direction and, by 2016, a potential opening for Huntsman and other moderates.
By the way, the adviser quoted earlier was John Weaver, who is also a longtime McCain adviser. Weaver seems to share the conviction that this is a cycle too early for Huntsman.
“I firmly believe that Huntsman and people like him are the prescription for what ails us,” he told Byron York of the Washington Examiner. “But I have the feeling that our party maybe won’t order that prescription in 2012.”
“If it’s 2012 and our party is defined by Palin and Limbaugh and Cheney, then we’re headed for a blowout,” Weaver said. “That’s just the truth.”
In that light, here’s the results of a Fox News poll released last week, asking GOP and independent voters who they would support in 2012:
Jeb Bush 3
What do you think? As prognosticators rather than partisans, who do you predict will be the GOP candidate in 2012?
UPDATE: Mike Huckabee wanes poetic.