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George F. Will: Jon Huntsman Jr.'s path to the GOP nomination is difficult one to chart

Published: Thursday, June 2 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. is cool and polished — traits that might be a liability in today's political climate.

Associated Press

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WASHINGTON — Donald Trump's pathological political exhibitionism has ended, Newt Gingrich has incinerated himself with an incoherent retraction tour, Mitt Romney has reaffirmed his enthusiasm for his Massachusetts health care law, rendering himself incapable of articulating the case against Obamacare and the entitlement state generally, Haley Barbour, Mike Huckabee and Mitch Daniels, aware of the axiom that anyone who will do what must be done to become president should not be allowed to be president, are out.

Watching this from his new home in Washington's tony Kalorama neighborhood and his office at 1455 Pennsylvania Ave., Jon Huntsman, 51, former Utah governor and recently resigned ambassador to China, contemplates moving his office two blocks west. The Republican contest may soon acquire a photogenic family and a distinctive foreign policy voice.

The independently wealthy Huntsmans have seven children, including a son at Annapolis aspiring to be a Navy SEAL, and two adopted daughters, from China and India. Huntsman's economic policies are Republican orthodoxy. His national security policies may make him the neoconservatives' nightmare but a welcome novelty for a larger constituency.

"Capital is a coward," Huntsman says, meaning capital is rational — it flees risky environments, which Obama administration policies create. He favors tax reform to stimulate capital formation, including a corporate tax rate of 24 percent or lower. He thinks lower but more inclusive income tax rates would be good economics — and good civics, reducing the share of households (47 percent in 2009) that pay no income taxes. At first saying Rep. Paul Ryan's budget "is worthy of consideration," and later endorsing it, he says: "If you're frightened of Ryan's road map, you have not looked at our accumulating debt."

Speaking here this month, he will explain the need to "clean up the map" of foreign policy. He is among the sizable American majority disturbed that there is no discernible winning outcome in, or exit strategy from, Afghanistan, where, he says, there is now, and will be when we leave, a civil war that need not greatly concern us.

He believes significant savings can be found while making the defense budget congruent with more judicious uses of U.S. military assets. This means more reliance on special operations, fewer interventions requiring large deployments — and no absent-minded interventions like that in Libya.

How will the Republican nominating electorate, preoccupied with questions about domestic policy and the role of government, respond to a candidate stressing national security, and those national security positions? Huntsman replies: "I don't know but we're about to find out."

With one of his 2012 rivals, Minnesota's former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Huntsman co-chaired John McCain's 2008 campaign, from which he has drawn key advisers. Like McCain, Huntsman will bypass Iowa. "I don't like subsidies," he says, so he opposes the Church of Ethanol, the established religion out "where the tall corn grows." New Hampshire, however, he says, "likes margin-of-error candidates with a message." In South Carolina, his cadre of supporters includes Mike Campbell, Huckabee's 2008 state chairman. Huntsman hopes for a respectable showing in Michigan, and he will also focus on Florida, where his wife is from and his campaign headquarters will be, in Orlando.

If Barack Obama wins a second term, this will be the first time there have been three consecutive two-term presidencies since Jefferson, Madison and Monroe between 1801 and 1825. The Republican nominee will be chosen by a relatively small cohort consisting of those Americans most determined that this not happen. Nominating electorates make up in intensity for what they lack in size. They pay close attention to presidential politics early, and participate in cold weather events, because they have a heat fueled by ideology. Cool hand Huntsman, with his polished persona and the complementary fluencies of a governor and a diplomat, might find those virtues are, if not defects, of secondary importance in the competition to enkindle Republicans eager to feast on rhetorical red meat.

So it is difficult to chart Huntsman's path to the Republicans' Tampa convention through a nominating electorate that is understandably furious about Obama's demonstrably imprudent and constitutionally dubious domestic policies. Even if that electorate approves Huntsman's un-Obamalike health care reforms in Utah and forgives his flirtation with a fanciful climate change regime among Western states, he faces the worthy but daunting challenge of bringing tea party Republicans — disproportionately important in the nominating process — to a boil about foreign policy.

George Will's email address is georgewill@washpost.com.

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