Huntsman's Chance

Written by David Frum on Friday September 23, 2011

The continuing deflation of Rick Perry after yet another fumbling debate performance has opened the most unexpected chapter yet in the GOP 2012 race: Jon Huntsman's emerging challenge to Mitt Romney - from the right.

Sound incredible? Take a look at the opening of Jon Huntsman's speech today to Florida's regional CPAC conference, text courtesy of the Huntsman campaign:

Nothing long survives without advocates, and that includes those rights, penned by Thomas Jefferson, upon which our nation was founded: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

How quickly those rights could be eroded – if not for this organization, and all of you. So thank you for your work.

I’d like to speak today about life and liberty, without which there can be no pursuit of happiness.

Let me begin by telling you about the life of my daughter, Gracie Mei. She’s 12 years old….I can’t imagine our world without Gracie and her younger sister Asha, who’s adopted from India. Every day we look in their eyes and thank God their mothers chose life, and did not throw it away.

As governor of Utah, I supported and signed landmark legislation to protect life – including parental consent and fetal pain laws – and as president I would do the same. ...

The pursuit of happiness is imperiled not just by infringements on life and liberty, but by the inability to find a job… Our most urgent priority must be putting the American people back to work and restoring America’s prosperity.

President Obama believes that we can tax and spend and regulate our way to prosperity. We cannot. We must compete our way to prosperity.

I’ve lived overseas four times, most recently as Ambassador to China.

I know our nation’s biggest competitor, and what it takes to compete in the 21st Century global economy.

I’ve also been governor of a state that under my leadership led the nation in job creation, and whose economy grew at triple the national rate – even faster than Texas under my good friend Rick Perry.

But I would never describe what happened in Utah as a “miracle,” because that is something unexplained. And we know exactly why we led the nation. We passed the largest tax cut in state history; streamlined regulations; honestly balanced the budget; tripled our rainy day fund; created certainty and an environment for growth.

We must do the same for America.

My jobs and economic plan is the only one endorsed by the Wall Street Journal, and described by one conservative economist as “the most pro-growth proposal ever offered” by a presidential candidate. ...

We should not be nation-building overseas, when we have nation-building to do here at home. We should not rest until we rebuild our core.

And when our military is overextended, we risk being unable to aid our allies in times of crisis, such as Israel staring down a nuclear Iran. I cannot live with a nuclear-armed Iran. If there was ever a reason to use American force, it would be that.

Very astute, no? The speech goes on to acknowledge Huntsman's support for science-based climate policy and same-sex civil unions (but not marriage!) - but the emphasis is on opposition to abortion and support for tax cuts, the two litmus test issues for Republican primary voters in pre-2012 contests. On both, Huntsman's record can be plausibly presented as more consistent than Romney's.

Now that Perry, the last great non-Romney hope, looks more and hopeless, Huntsman has a real chance to present himself as the Buckley candidate: the most conservative viable candidate.

If this plan works, it will raise two thoughts: What a nimble piece of campaigning by Huntsman! Perry followed the obvious path (lurch hard right to gain the Tea Party, then pivot to the center to appear electable) - and tripped over his own feet. Huntsman did the opposite, feinting left to gain elite media support - then reasserting his previous conservative credentials on abortion and taxes.

Second thought: As Perry crumbles, so do the last hopes of Tea Party Republicans to nominate one of their own. Are Tea Party Republicans wondering: what is it about us that we could not generate a ready-for-primetime candidate of our own? Palin, Bachmann, Cain, Perry: all our preferred candidates join Christine O'Donnell and Sharron Angle in the annals of bad choices. What does it say about a movement that it consistently produces - and then disastrously hero-worships - such third-rate leadership?

UPDATE: On the other hand, actual Republican primary voters remain as yet untroubled by Rick Perry's debate performances, according to the Quinnipiac poll.