This morning, before Jon Huntsman spoke at a conference of college students in Concord, New Hampshire, the former Republican Utah governor took a few questions from a pack of ravenous reporters. (He could use all the free press he can get). And I managed to get in a question, asking the former US ambassador to China whether he believes his fellow contenders for the GOP presidential nomination are a wee bit too conservative for many American voters. Here's the exchange:
Do you think the Republican field overall is just too far to the right for most American voters?
We're in the pre-season. We're in the silly season. And I say we've got a lot of voters out there who hunger not for political theatrics but for real ideas and real solutions—not sound bites, not red meat, but real solutions and ideas. Ultimately, that's where our conversation must go
But is that a yes?
You know the cycles of politics as well as anybody. You hear the pre-season. You hear certain rhetoric. And then you move into the post-season, and there's a different level of rhetoric. I say, I don't follow those rules. I say, you square with the American people from Day One. Let them know who you are. They might not like everything you're talking about. But I'm not going to vary. I'm not going to shift through the course of the campaign. I'm going to lay out what I think is doable and live with the consequences.
Mr. Huntsman was raised a polite boy. The candidate was essentially saying that the others are now pandering to right-wing voters, but he won't. Which pretty much explains why he's been struggling in the polls, and, despite practically moving to New Hampshire, has yet (according to those surveys) to catch fire among the Live-Free-or-Die GOPers here.
During his talk to the students, Huntsman came across as smart, affable, and slightly goofy. Unlike, say, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, and Ron Paul, he displayed no hatred for anyone: not liberals, not gays, not the government. And he was rather heartfelt when he responded to a despicable ad supposedly posted by a Ron Paul supporter attacking Huntsman as a pro-Chinese Manchurian candidate and citing his adoption of daughters in China and India as evidence of his secret agenda. Huntsman did compare the GOP primary race to a "circus." But he's not an angry fellow. His dominant emotional theme seemed to be disappointment. He's sad the economy isn't growing faster and that people don't trust elected officials. He only minimally assailed Barack Obama.
Huntsman is the odd man out this year. And he keeps prompting the obvious question: what's he doing here?