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The Latest White Knight On a Dark Horse

It's been my theory for a while that the evergreen Republican buzz over potential dark horse 2012 presidential candidates reflects a sort of quiet desperation about the field the GOP is actually likely to choose from: Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingich, Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum, maybe Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann. None of these folk are competing very well in general election trial heats against Barack Obama, and all of them have notable weaknesses that would afflict them in either primary or November competition.

So we are hearing a lot about John Thune and Haley Barbour and Mitch Daniels and Chris Christie (and until we took himself definitively out of the running last week, Mike Pence). They, too, have their own problems, beginning with the fact that none of them have strong national name identification, all of them have time-consuming day jobs, and the time for fantasizing about a 2012 race has just about run out.

The latest White Knight to excite the GOP chattering classes is none other than the Obama administration's ambassador to China, former Utah governor Jon Hunstsman, who is said to be on the brink of resigning his job and mulling a candidacy for president in cahoots with 2008 nominee John McCain.

As some of you may recall, there was an equally strong presidential buzz about Huntsman back in 2009 when he surprised a lot of observers by accepting the Beijing gig. A common conclusion then was that Huntsman had decided to skip 2012 because his party was in the throes of a right-wing bender, and might only come around to his way of thinking after a well-earned second trouncing by Obama.

Since Huntsman can't exactly say he's been spending the last twenty months reading Hayek and Strauss and getting in touch with his inner Ronald Reagan, you have to wonder why he thinks he's a better fit for the GOP presidential race now than he did in 2009. While he was away, his party got significantly more conservative, and has now taken the 2010 midterm elections results (which he can't take any credit for) as a mandate for even more ideological intolerance. In Huntsman's own home state of Utah, most obviously, Sen Bob Bennett was unceremoniously dumped by a state GOP convention, an institution that Huntsman argued should be abandoned because it was dominated by "activists."

As Dave Weigel noted, there's just no obvious rationale for a Huntsman candidacy right now:

History isn't the best guide to whether someone can or can't win, but serving in the administration you want to displace is a unique problem. The questions emerge: Did you oppose the president on Unpopular Issue X? What about on Y? If these questions are successfully dodged, why were you appointed in the first place? Huntsman has a problem less severe than Mitt Romney's, but damaging nonetheless -- he signed up with the Western Regional Climate Action Initiative in 2007. Regional cap-and-trade systems are anathema to conservatives; that decision by Huntsman opens up a discussion about the other things he's stiffed them on. If Mitch Daniels is in trouble merely because he's talked about a "social truce," how far can a candidate get if he's talked down conservative dogma and acted on it?

This last comment is probably an allusion to Huntsman's famous decision to defy Utah Republicans in early 2009 by coming out for same-sex civil unions, a stand that is not likely to endear him to the activists who will dominate the Iowa Caucuses in 2011, obsessed as they are with overturning their state's legalization of gay marriage. More generally, the last thing the 2012 field needs is another rich flip-flopping Mormon trying to occupy the moderate lane against a passle of hard-right candidates. If he were to run, Huntsman would indeed complicate Mitt Romney's life immeasurably. But take a look a the long, admiring profile of Huntsman that Zvika Krieger wrote for The New Republic in 2009, and tell me if he sounds like a guy in tune with the current GOP zeitgeist. I don't think so.

But Huntsman will get his buzz, at least in Washington, as both Republican insiders and the news media cast about for someone to write about other than the usual suspects of the 2012 field.