Jon Huntsman— Can a moderate with strong foreign policy bona fides survive the 2012 Republican campaign?
Jon Huntsman, the former Republican governor of Utah who crossed party lines to serve as President Barack Obama's ambassador to China, will stand in front of the Statue of Liberty tomorrow and announce he is running for president. Huntsman tends to get both foreign policy types and the cable news political punditocracy fired up -- He's moderate! He's friendly! He speaks Chinese! He worked for Obama! But is he an attractive candidate to anyone else-and most importantly, actual Republican voters?
The poll numbers would seem to suggest Huntsman has a long way to go. He finished dead last in the most recent Rasmussen poll of potential Republican candidates, with only 2 percent of likely voters saying they were inclined to cast their ballot for him. To put that into perspective, Mitt Romney got 33 percent of the vote. Herman Cain -- the pizza guy!-- got 10 percent. Even the option of "some other candidate" scored higher than Huntsman (8 percent).
Of course, this could all change once he's actively campaigning and participating in debates. But the rush to anoint him as a major candidate seems a bit premature. It doesn't help that the White House seems to be trying to kill him with kindness. Over the weekend Obama advisor David Axelrod told CNN "I think he's a very bright, fluent person." He said Huntsman's criticisms of the president were surprising because "he was very effusive about what the president was doing" when they talked in the past.
While Huntsman's ability to run the conservative gauntlet and seize the Republican nomination is still up for debate, China hands who have dealt with him and studied his tenure as U.S. envoy to Beijing give him high marks -- both diplomatically and politically.
"In terms of knowledge and diplomatic skills, I'd regard him as one of the best ambassadors we had," said Kenneth Lieberthal, a China expert at the Brookings Institution who met with Huntsman on several occasions in Beijing. "I thought he was very good. He related effectively to Chinese audiences. Part of that is he speaks Chinese well, but he also had a cultural sensitivity. I saw him when I made trips there. He was always on top of key issues."
Orville Schell, the director of the Center on U.S.-China relations at the Asia Society, said he was also well-liked by the embassy staff.
"He is a very smart guy, quick on his feet, and he has a certain candor," he said. "We'll see if that remains when he starts campaigning."
Schell confirmed that his ability to speak Chinese opened doors for him in the country.
"He would go out in front of Chinese audiences-- he was a bit of a trained bear act. The Chinese adore anyone who can speak Chinese," he said.
If there was one discordant note to Huntsman's tenure as ambassador, it occurred when he got embroiled in a controversy about democratic reform in China near the end of his tour. There was a small pro-democracy demonstration outside a McDonalds in Beijing back in February and Huntsman showed up. He denied he was there to observe the demonstration, saying he was just in the wrong placed at the wrong time, but it caused some ripples in the Chinese government, which always suspected the United States was pushing a pro-democracy agenda, Lieberthal said.
His last public talk as ambassador in April on the topic of U.S.-China relations also caused some controversy due to his specific criticisms of China human rights cases. He referenced imprisoned artist Ai Weiwei and Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and said, "The United States will never stop supporting human rights because we believe in the fundamental struggle for human dignity and justice wherever it may occur."
Could he have been setting himself up for a White House run by burnishing his bona fides on human rights issues and pushing a get-tough message? White House aides now say despite his past denials that he was considering a campaign in 2012, they suspect he had not always been straight with them about his political aspirations, according to the New York Times.
Beyond that, some critics say he has also already begun backpedaling on issues he once promoted, like climate change policy.
"My impression is he is an honorable man," said Schell. "We'll see whether the campaign will allow him to continue being an honorable man."
He does have one major thing going for him. In a sea of political bores, he is exciting. And people who have met with him say he has political skills that might surprise many.
"One time I brought a group of [Americans] to the embassy to meet with him,' said Lieberthal, who previously served in the Clinton administration. "There were seven people there besides me. He went around the table. It took him less than 30 seconds literally to establish some direct connection with each person. It reminded me of Clinton's skill on that level. He's the kind of politician who never forgets a name, never forgets a face."
A little Clinton magic couldn't hurt when you're at 2 percent in the polls.