GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, a man so reasonable that Gallup has placed him dead last in its latest poll, won a standing ovation from a chamber full of lawmakers at the state Capitol on Wednesday.
In part, merely because he showed up.
In the high-drama Republican sweepstakes for the right to face down President Barack Obama, Georgia again is playing the role of the loyal and reliable ATM. We are an open wallet for the candidate who needs money to spend — in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada or South Carolina.
Huntsman was the first Republican in the field to visit the state Capitol since then-Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty last November.
This, of course, doesn’t count Newt Gingrich, who at one point was supposed to be running a Georgia-centric, favorite-son campaign. Not even Herman Cain, whose headquarters is in Stockbridge, has thought it worthwhile to publicly tap the Capitol for electoral help.
Which is one reason why House Speaker David Ralston rolled out the red carpet for Huntsman. Moreover, the speaker said he’d be willing to do the same for any presidential candidate — Democrat or Republican. (Somebody send a note to the White House.)
“It’s good for them to know that Georgia is an important place. Rather than go see them, I think it’s good for them to come to see us,” Ralston told his members. Consider that a small dig at Gov. Rick Perry, who has invited state lawmakers to fly to Texas to get a feel for the candidate.
Huntsman is no dummy. He quickly picked up on Ralston’s message. “Serious candidates come here to the statehouse. You shouldn’t have to go to them. Just remember that,” Huntsman told lawmakers.
Overall, the former U.S. ambassador to China and Singapore delivered an upbeat, Reaganesque message. “We are a blue-sky, optimistic people. We’re going to find solutions. We always do,” Huntsman said.
He spoke of his China experience. “You walk the streets of Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou, and there’s energy. There’s a level of enthusiasm,” Huntsman said. “I just want to remind you what this country has. We have everything this country needs to succeed, and we forget that sometimes.”
Afterward, Huntsman hung around for a few photographs with lawmakers. Democrats were just as eager to be seen with him as Republicans.
This was a reconnoitering mission for Huntsman, not a messaging opportunity. Reporters were limited to a single, impromptu encounter in which Huntsman declined to take a pot shot at Joe Biden.
The vice president’s just-finished tour of Asia included a stop in Beijing to reassure the leaders of China — which holds more of our debt than any other foreign country — that the U.S. government remains a sound investment.
Rather, Huntsman endorsed the visit. “This dialogue between the United States and China is very, very important. It’s gone on for 40 years, Republicans and Democrats alike,” he said. “We need to understand their intentions; they need to understand our intentions.”
Because he is not — by temperament — a red-meat candidate, because of his Mormon religion, and because Gallup says he’s earned the support of only 1 percent of the Republican electorate, it would be easy to dismiss Huntsman as a man of a GOP middle that no longer exists.
Perry — whom Gallup pronounced the new GOP frontrunner on Wednesday — is quickly becoming the favorite of many Republicans in the Capitol. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who has made fundraising forays into Georgia, this week made public his list of supporters at the Capitol: six lawmakers, a member of the Public Service Commission, and an attorney general.
But there is every reason to think that Huntsman is taking Georgia seriously. Asked by reporters whether he favors increased revenues to address a $14 trillion federal debt, Huntsman said — of course — that he opposed any tax increases.
“But I would phase out the loopholes and the deductions and biases in a terribly antiquated tax code. It is broken and every American knows it,” Huntsman said — an answer that sounded very much like U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss and his Gang of Six.
In fact, Chambliss’ office later confirmed that the senator and Huntsman have had conversations. Likewise, U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson.
Huntsman has at least two friends in the state Capitol. State Rep. Joe Wilkinson, R-Sandy Springs, is still pledged to Gingrich, but on Wednesday he squired Huntsman to meetings with the Senate majority leader, governor and Ralston. Wilkinson said his friendship with Huntsman dates back to their Reagan White House years.
State Rep. Earl Ehrhart of Powder Springs, a deeply conservative Republican, counts himself as an out-and-out Huntsman supporter. In part because they both have sons in the same class at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.
A Buckhead fundraiser for Huntsman turned out perhaps 60 people on Tuesday evening, including former House speaker Terry Coleman, a Democrat. Many of those who attended, in private conversations, wondered whether they were meeting a 2012 presidential candidate, or a leader of the next, more libertarian-minded generation of Republican voters.
Huntsman is giving some thought to a return visit to Georgia next month. One suggestion: He has made clear to CNN that he can say “Nimen hao!” in a fine Beijing accent. Surely, in a few short weeks, he can wrap his tongue around “Hey, y’all!
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider