When Republican Jon Huntsman announced that he’d be resigning as Obama’s China ambassador, it spurred talk that he is prepping for a 2012 presidential bid. But with the conventional wisdom holding that the Republican primary electorate will be looking for a die-hard conservative in 2012, Huntsman, the former Utah governor who spent the last two years working for (not opposing) Barack Obama, could have a tough time establishing his right-wing credentials. And it doesn’t help that a prominent GOP fan labels him a moderate. On Tuesday, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), while talking up Huntsman as a potential presidential candidate, told reporters, “He would be more moderate than most Republicans running for president, and I think he would probably admit that.”
Having embraced a regional cap-and-trade system, civil unions for gay and lesbian couples, and Obama’s much-loathed stimulus package, Huntsman has drawn steady fire from the right flank of the party. Some observers have already written off a 2012 Huntsman bid as a “crazy gambit,” arguing that there’s no way a centrist former Obama administration official could capture the Republican nomination.
But Hatch dismissed the notion that the tea-party right would automatically quash Huntsman’s chances. The Utah Senator told Mother Jones:
It isn’t the tea party right that is really—they’re not the only people involved. The independents are tremendously involved, a lot of Democrats are involved. That’s why independents went for Republicans in large measure in this last election. Even Democrats are voting for Republicans because they recognize this is an overwhelming Democrat central government bill that they really don’t they like.
Hatch even denied that Huntsman’s diplomatic post in the Obama administration would be much of a liability. He noted that Huntsman can say, “Look, I left the most important diplomatic post in the country because I disagree with the government. That shows some spunk.” (Huntsman, though, did not announce he was leaving due to a disagreement with Obama.)
Hatch’s dismissal of the tea party wing was curious. After all, tea partiers have discussed opposing him next year during the GOP primaries—in the same way they successfully went after and defeated Sen. Bob Bennett in Utah last year. (Like Bennett, Hatch has a history of occasionally reaching across the aisle, though he is a unmistakably a conservative.) Though one of the tea party’s top 2012 primary targets, Hatch was downplaying the party’s right flank. Does that mean he’s not worried about the tea partiers—or that he’s so worried that he’s trying to deny their influence? In any event, when Hatch claimed that Huntsman could triumph despite tea party opposition, perhaps he was projecting his own fate as well.