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Jon Huntsman for President in 2012?

2:05 PM, Jan 3, 2011 • By JAY COST
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The latest edition of Newsweek says that Jon Huntsman might be interested in running for president:

The moderate Republican had once been considered a rising star in the GOP and a likely 2012 contender, with David Plouffe, Barack Obama’s campaign mastermind, even identifying Huntsman as the only Republican who made him “a wee bit queasy” about the next race. But speculation ended abruptly in 2009 when Obama tapped Huntsman for the ambassadorship... 

Now, it appears, the ambassador is ready to make some noise of his own...“You know, I’m really focused on what we’re doing in our current position,” he says. “But we won’t do this forever, and I think we may have one final run left in our bones.” Asked whether he is prepared to rule out a run in 2012 (since it would require him to campaign against his current boss), he declines to comment. 

The winking response—about as close to a hat-in-ring announcement as you’ll get from a sitting member of the incumbent’s administration—could just be a hollow cry for attention. But sources close to Huntsman (who requested anonymity to speak freely without his permission) say that during his December trip to the U.S., he met with several former political advisers in Washington and Salt Lake City to discuss a potential campaign. “I’m not saying he’s running,” says one supporter who has worked with him in the past. “But we’re a fire squad; if he says the word, we can get things going fast.”

Newsweek might be exaggerating Huntsman's inclination to run here. After all, he did recently purchase a house in Washington, D.C., which is not a great first step in running for a party nomination that will be dominated by the Tea Party.  

But let's assume that Huntsman wants to run.  Would he be a viable candidate?  Could the former Utah governor turned Obama administration ambassador to China actually run against his boss in 2012?

Well, at a minimum we can say that it is not historically unprecedented, as Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. tried a similar campaign in 1964. John F. Kennedy had named Lodge – a former Massachusetts senator, the mastermind of the Eisenhower nomination in 1952, and the Republican nominee for vice president in 1960 – to be ambassador to South Vietnam. When Kennedy was assassinated, there was suddenly an angle for Lodge, at least in theory. LBJ would presumably run strong in the South and West, but a Republican nominee from the Northeast might help the party take the region, which would give it at least a shot at victory.

So in 1964 Lodge ran a kind of shadow campaign. He stayed in Vietnam, did not put out issue papers, and left the details to others. The image he wanted to project was one of a dutiful public servant who would not campaign actively for the nomination, but would accept a draft from his fellow citizens. When he defeated Barry Goldwater in the New Hampshire primary in March, he displaced Nelson "Rocky" Rockefeller as the premier anti-Goldwater candidate. Rocky – the original RINO – was the governor of New York, which made him a perennial contender for the GOP nomination, but his image suffered greatly when he divorced his wife and married Happy Rockefeller, who was many years his junior. This gave Lodge his opening, and the ambassador followed up his win in New Hampshire with victories in New Jersey and Massachusetts in April. In Pennsylvania he finished second – well ahead of Goldwater – behind favorite son William Scranton. But Rockefeller struck back in the Oregon primary held in May, in large part by going negative against Lodge, criticizing him for not respecting the people enough to actually campaign. Lodge lost the primary by about 5 percent, and Rockefeller went on to lose the California primary to Barry Goldwater, all but ensuring the latter's nomination.

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