Will the real Jon Huntsman please stand up?

Stewart Lawrence Stewart J. Lawrence is a Washington, D.C.-based public policy analyst who writes frequently on immigration and Latino affairs. He is also founder and managing director of Puentes & Associates, Inc., a bilingual survey research and communications firm.
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GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman seems to suffer from a political personality disorder. Is the former Utah governor a true-blue Republican conservative, as his sterling record on taxes, spending and abortion would suggest? Or has he morphed into a John McCain-style “centrist” — or worse, an Obama clone?

Huntsman has just returned to GOP politics after a two-year stint as Obama’s China envoy. He’s still trying to get his footing, and given the breadth of his experience, it’s understandable that he’s experimenting a bit with different “profiles.”

But he better decide who he really is — and soon. Major GOP donors are anxious to consolidate around a winning candidate. Mitt Romney is slowly expanding his lead over the field, nationally and in New Hampshire, and Tea Party darling Michele Bachmann is surging among movement conservatives, especially in Iowa. And if Texas Governor Rick Perry joins the race, as expected, he’ll challenge Romney and Bachmann both.

That could well leave Huntsman without a base of support — and with virtually no chance of winning.

But don’t tell Huntsman’s campaign team that. Despite polls showing that their candidate barely registers with GOP voters, they’re confident that Huntsman will give Romney a run for his money in New Hampshire, as well as in South Carolina and Florida. They may be right, but not if they continue to pursue their current campaign strategy.

The theory behind the Huntsman campaign is that most voters, especially independents, are tired of partisan gridlock and personal vitriol. They want a candidate who’s open to working with the political opposition and getting things done — a conservative “problem-solver,” as Huntsman likes to say. Ideology, apparently, is secondary.

Huntsman’s campaign advisers point to next year’s “open” primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina as prime opportunities for a motorcycle-riding, Mandarin-speaking, rock-and roll enthusiast to wow independents with his “maverick” personality, his future-oriented vision and his calls for “restraint” and “civility.”

Nonsense, I say.

Many of Huntsman’s advisors, including his campaign director John Weaver, are veterans of McCain’s 2008 campaign. But they’re misapplying the lessons from that campaign. Huntsman might do fairly well in New Hampshire, but if he follows Weaver’s strategy, he probably won’t win.

McCain didn’t win in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida because of his message. He won because of his personality. He’d already eliminated many voters’ objections to his moderate record by tacking to the right. That made it possible for conservatives to embrace him as a war hero and a political fighter. Unlike Romney the flip-flopper, McCain the soldier-statesman projected toughness and “gravitas,” plus a healthy independence from his Republican predecessor.

Huntsman has none of McCain’s credibility on war and peace issues. He’s a diplomat, not a warrior, and his recent foreign policy pronouncements make him sound positively dovish. Other GOP candidates seem to be indulging the voters’ neo-isolationist impulses. But no one has gone as far as Huntsman in suggesting that America is too preoccupied with global security threats, should withdraw from Afghanistan and Libya, and should even abandon counter-terrorism as a primary defense mission.

New Hampshire voters, of course, have embraced non-interventionists in the past. Witness the success of populist “America-First” candidate Pat Buchanan, who edged past GOP front-runner Bob Dole in New Hampshire in 1996. But Buchanan failed to gain traction in states like South Carolina and Florida, where voters have more hawkish views. Huntsman needn’t endorse “nation-building,” but he should adopt a more sober and balanced view of how security and economic challenges are intertwined.

Many defense experts, for example, are worried about China’s growing military might, which is something that Huntsman needs to address, in addition to China’s trade advantage. Most voters — including many Democrats — still want a candidate who projects strength when dealing with foreign policy challenges.

Even so, trying to turn Huntsman into McCain is a mistake. Romney, the party’s heir apparent and the “maverick” on health care reform, has already seized McCain’s mantle. He’s a known quantity and has the support of much of the party establishment. And because he seems electable, many GOP voters are prepared to hold their noses and vote for him, just as they voted for McCain in 2008.

That means Huntsman would do better to run against Romney in 2012 much as Romney did against McCain in 2008 — not as the “moderate” alternative, but as the “conservative” one. In Utah, Huntsman was a dedicated and successful tax-cutter, deficit-reducer and job-creator. The independent Pew Foundation voted Utah the “best managed” state in the nation when Huntsman was its governor. Huntsman left office with an 80% approval rating. And unlike Romney, he has an unquestioned commitment to “life.”

Huntsman’s foreign policy experience — which exceeds that of any other candidate — is also a potential trump card. Huntsman has already received rave bipartisan reviews for his China ambassadorship. He managed to get on his host’s wavelength, while not backing down on human rights issues. And he is obviously an accomplished negotiator, a skill that would serve him well as president.

But if Huntsman doesn’t recast his foreign policy views, he could find himself out in left field with Ron Paul, while Bachmann and Romney score points with conservatives and independents alike by embracing a realist paradigm (with a “vital interests” litmus test for intervention).

Huntsman’s positions on the key issues — taxes, the deficit and abortion — are as conservative as Bachmann’s and Perry’s. He should position himself not to the left of Romney, where he appears now, but to the right. At the same time, Huntsman can compete with moderates in New Hampshire and elsewhere not by moving “left” but by emphasizing his governing experience and his intimate knowledge of America’s adversaries — especially China — and by assuming the same “presidential” profile that Romney does.

Huntsman needs to run on his conservative record. Projecting civility and moderation may one day make Huntsman a great president, but right now he needs to focus on becoming a great candidate.

Stewart J. Lawrence is a Washington, D.C.-based public policy analyst who writes frequently on immigration and Latino affairs. He is also founder and managing director of Puentes & Associates, Inc., a bilingual survey research and communications firm.