Could a Late Jon Huntsman Surge Spell the End of Mitt Romney?

12/02/2011 10:41 am ET | Updated Feb 01, 2012

Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman is the most "moderate" Republican candidate running for the presidency. And in a political season in which rage has largely triumphed over reason, no one seriously expects such an urbane and thoughtful man to win the GOP nomination.

In fact, until recently, with first Michele Bachmann, then Rick Perry, and more recently, Herman Cain -- to say nothing of Sarah Palin -- hogging the limelight, Huntsman's quirky and at times bizarre campaign wasn't gaining him much attention. His poll numbers seemed to hover between 2% and oblivion. Many voters came away from his town halls and "meet-and-greets" impressed with his calm and folksy manner, but hardly anyone claimed they'd actually cast a ballot for him.

But take a look at the latest polls coming out of New Hampshire. After months of barely registering there or anywhere else, Huntsman's suddenly broken into double-digits. At 11%, he's nearly tied with libertarian stalwart Ron Paul for third place behind Mitt Romney, whose candidacy has largely stalled, and Newt Gingrich, who's surging just about everywhere, sending the Romney campaign into panic mode.

Gingrich's extraordinary rise -- he's pulling away in Iowa and South Carolina, and most of the Deep South -- seems to have masked the equally remarkable rise from obscurity of Huntsman. Why, after all this time, is Huntsman suddenly making real headway, and could he actually win somewhere?

One possibility is that Gingrich's rise is part of a more generalized fall from grace of the leading Tea party candidates that seems to have re-focused the GOP campaign on practical ideas and solutions - -and away from tea party placards and bumper-stickers. Gingrich may not be the super-deep intellectual he so often projects himself to be, but his battery of thoughtful debate points have turned him into the Republican equivalent of E.F. Hutton: when he talks, people listen, even his fellow candidates.

And that dynamic clearly favors the cerebral Huntsman. Especially with the recent debate in New Hampshire, Huntsman seems, at last, to have found his true "voice." He's taking on other
candidates, including Romney and Cain, more directly, and no longer looks and sounds like a wan but charming intellectual -- all smiles and affability -- who's still trying to re-acclimate himself to the rough-and-tumble of American politics after two (arguably sterling) years as Obama's ambassador to China.

Huntsman recently scored big points for moving beyond Rick Perry- and Ron Paul-style rhetoric about "abolishing" the Fed or "firing" Fed chief Ben Bernanke. He not only managed to offer a detailed -- and by all accounts, innovative -- plan for reforming the US financial system, he even coined -- or least propagated -- what's become a catchy expression for how the major banks got the country into so much trouble, leaving Main Street so far in arrears -- and literally "Fed up." It's called "Too Big to Fail," or TBTF, the idea that at a few gargantuan financial institutions can still hold the US Treasury, and the entire central government, completely hostage, should they choose to.

Huntsman's plan, which among other things would would restrict bank assets to a much lower percentage of the GDP and set a hard cap on total borrowing by any single bank, has won him big kudos from influential conservative scholars at institutions like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. Expect TBTF to figure prominently in future GOP debates (there are two more scheduled for mid-December), much as Cain's 9-9-9 tax plan has in the past, which should shine a fresh spotlight on Huntsman.

But Huntsman's sudden rise in New Hampshire also rests on the patient, and nearly invisible, base work he's conducted in the state -- in fact, only Romney has spent more time there than the former Utah governor.

Huntsman also has a secret weapon: his leading campaign director in New Hampshire, Wally Stickney, is the same man who nearly delivered the state to Romney in 2008. Stickney helped Romney focus on a key concentration of voters in and around Salem, who turned out heavily for the former Massachusetts governor, allowing him to finish a close second, and to continue his campaign. Romney, of course, has gone back to these voters -- but so has Huntsman, and apparently, with doubts about Romney growing everywhere, it's finally paying off.

Make no mistake: Huntsman's road to the GOP nomination, let alone the White House, is barely discernible. He supports cap-and-trade, and like Gingrich, has long favored a nationwide "guest worker" program as a solution to the illegal immigration crisis -- even working closely with then-Arizona Governor and current Department of Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano to fashion one in 2006. However, there's also a major sea-change occurring, with Gingrich, especially, helping to redefine who a "moderate" and a "conservative" Republican is.

And with so many conservative challengers to Romney having fallen by the wayside, and now Romney, himself, apparently fading, just about everyone left standing, including Ron Paul, is getting a serious second look.

Huntsman, it turns out, is decidedly pro-life and has an impeccable record of cutting taxes and creating jobs in Utah, where he was once rated the nation's top governor. Sure he's a Mormon, but so is Romney, and Huntsman's a decidedly unorthodox one, expressing admiration for Buddhism and sending his kids to Catholic schools, and as an adult, generally steering clear of the Mormon institutions he grew up in (unlike Romney, who turns out to be a distant cousin, he refused to attend Brigham Young University).

It's a "two-man race," say the pollsters, meaning Gingrich and Romney. But of course, that's what they said about Romney and Perry and Romney and Cain -- and look where we are now. Gingrich is devouring Romney from the right, but Huntsman's surge is coming from the left, and in both New Hampshire and South Carolina, which hold "open" primaries in 2012, many Democrats who openly admire Huntsman -- and who despise Gingrich -- are expected to vote also, and that could easily lead to unexpected consequences for the two men at the top.

And remember: this is New Hampshire, which has a habit of defying the odds and voting for candidates (witness Pat Buchanan in 1996) who have no real chance of going the full distance.

If nothing else, by depriving his fellow Mormon of a badly needed sanctuary among moderates, in New Hampshire and possibly elsewhere, Huntsman, even more than Gingrich, could well be the man who sends the former Massachusetts governor to his second straight defeat for the presidency. That could spell an end to Romney's once-promising political career -- and quite possibly, the beginning of a bright new one for the man who once dropped out of school to play lead guitar in a rock-and-roll band.

Who knows, maybe the GOP has a future after all?