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The Daily Need

Is Jon Huntsman the GOP’s ‘serious’ candidate (and do they even want one)?

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. Photo: AP/Elise Amendola

A rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. An end to the bombing campaign in Libya. Deep cuts to military spending. And a more aggressive pro-democracy stance in China.

These positions would seem to belong to the platform of a Democrat, perhaps a disaffected member of the party’s liberal wing, seeking to challenge President Obama from the left.

In fact, they are among the core tenets of a campaign that will begin on Tuesday — when former Gov. Jon Huntsman, most recently the ambassador to China, announces his intention to seek the Republican nomination for president.

Huntsman is banking in part on his image as a substantive politician with strong credentials as a fiscal conservative and a deep knowledge of complex geopolitical issues. For two years he was a central figure in perhaps the most important — and most difficult — relationship on the world stage, that of the U.S. and China. And he’s a social moderate who, his advisers say, is unafraid to speak difficult truths, even to the most influential constituents of his own party.

In essence, Huntsman is hoping to cast himself as the “serious” candidate in the race. The question, though, is whether “seriousness” is a commodity in high demand among Republican primary voters.

Huntsman’s religion may also present a challenge. Polls show that there remains considerable unease among evangelical Christians — who play an outsize role in GOP nominating contests — with Mormonism, which many of them consider heretical. Huntsman has tried alternatively to play down his Mormonism and to trumpet his conservative credentials on issues such as abortion, in order to appease the social conservatives in the party.

His chief strategist is a veteran political operative who has experience running outsider campaigns. John Weaver was a trusted adviser of Sen. John McCain in both of his presidential runs (he resigned in the summer of 2007 when McCain’s second bid for the GOP nomination began to stall). He also helped run the firebrand gubernatorial campaign of Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, who bolted the Democratic Party in 2010 to run for governor of New York as a Republican.

In an interview with Esquire this week, Weaver called the current crop of Republican candidates “the weakest since 1940” and said there was an opening in the race for a candidate with substantive policy experience who has proven his ability to competently manage a state’s finances:

“There’s a simple reason our party is nowhere near being a national governing party,” Weaver told Esquire. “No one wants to be around a bunch of cranks.”

Weaver sees Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts and the presumed front-runner, as a man afraid to take a stand — or, more accurately, as a man unafraid of taking every stand. “What version are we on now?” Weaver said. “Mitt 5.0? 6.0?”

And in former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, another leading candidate, Weaver sees what he considers the worst tendencies of his party — pandering to the G.O.P.’s hard-right margins at the risk of falling out of serious presidential contention.

“Tim’s a nice guy,” Weaver said, “and there’s nothing worse than seeing a nice guy pretend that he’s angry. Is that really what we want to be? Is that how we’re going to define ourselves? When’s the last time an angry man ever solved a problem without using a gun?”

Anger, of course, seems like the only currency in Republican politics these days. It’s hard to imagine GOP primary voters — the most fervent conservatives in their party — embracing a candidate who does not share their visceral disgust for Barack Obama. And Weaver, it should be noted, is himself no stranger to “angry” campaigns — Levy’s quixotic gubernatorial bid was openly predicated on the notion that white, suburban voters in places like Long Island and upstate New York wanted a political “revolution,” as Levy put it.

Still, the Republican field’s greatest flaw at the moment may be its ideological homogeneity. All seven of the candidates spent the first debate straining to appeal to supporters of the Tea Party and batter Obama. With few exceptions, they affirmed their support for Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan’s controversial plan to revamp Medicare. And they each vowed to slash taxes and reduce the overall size of the federal government, while declining to name the specific cuts that they would make (or explain in any detail how those cuts would fuel economic growth).

There may then be room for a candidate who can articulate a more coherent plan for trimming federal spending — Huntsman has already said he would look for cuts in the Pentagon, traditionally a sacred cow for Republicans — and talk intelligently about the predominant geopolitical issues of the day. Matt Bennett, a former official in the Clinton White House and vice president of the centrist group Third Way, said his organization has found in polls and focus groups that voters closely associate economic security with national strength, which may provide an opening for a statesman-technocrat hybrid like Huntsman.

“Voters don’t see security as separate from economic strength. They don’t look at security the way people in politics do, which is, there’s security on one side of a bright line and then there’s domestic issues on the other. They see it as completely interrelated,” Bennett said. “People don’t pull those threads apart. They say America is not as strong as we used to be because of our economic weakness.”

The problem Huntsman faces as he enters an unsettled Republican field, however, is that the vast majority of the energy and enthusiasm in politics — especially among Republicans — is focused on the economy and government spending. Frank Newport, the editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll, said the jobless rate and national debt “swamp” everything else when pollsters ask GOP voters which issues are most important to them. “It’s going to be the economy that’s going to really be the issue,” Newport said. “And the shrewd Republican will no doubt try to take advantage of that.”