I continue to think that Jon Huntsman, Obama's ambassador to China and former Republican governor of Utah, has the inside track for the Republican nomination. Obviously, I like that thought and hope it happens, but I also happen to think he's the strongest candidate currently in the race (something the Obama White House also seems to believe, we are told).
Here's a scenario. The declared and/or prospective field of Republican candidates has been shrinking in the last few weeks, with potentially strong candidates--like Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, Mitch Daniels, Haley Barbour--refusing to enter the race. Tim Pawlenty has very little appeal, frankly, and Newt Gingrich is simply a disaster-waiting-to-happen. Herman Cain is definitely a Southern loudmouth with no depth and no political staying power.
All this leaves a much bigger opening for Huntsman than one would have expected at this time. Barring the entry of some other strong candidate, his main competition now is Mitt Romney in the center and Sarah Palin/Michelle Bachmann on the right.
Mitt Romney has strengths, no doubt, which is why he's currently leading the field, but he also has many liabilities, the primary one being that he is seen as too ambitious and too willing to say whatever has to be said to win. He also has a certain 'unctiousness' about him (that's a great word) that will ultimately be his undoing. He is at or near his political high water mark, if you ask me.
As for the Tea Party favorites, Sarah 'Barracuda' Palin and Michele Bachmann, Palin will not enter the race, because, frankly, she really can't stand the political or intellectual heat. As long as she can shoot off her mouth from Alaska, she's fine. But it is simply impossible to think of her actually being able to engage the press and the public in an actual national campaign. As we all remember, in 2008 she was encased in this press-tight VP campaign from which she rarely emerged to talk to the press. That can't happen when you're running for the top job, so therefore she won't do it. She likes her money, her fame, her family and Alaska too much, in that order.
Bachmann is another matter. She is much more capable of enduring the rigors of a campaign, because she can comfortably talk to the press and has the ability to make her case to the public. Indeed, it is very possible that she could win the Iowa Caucuses next January. But that would probably be her high water mark, since she has too narrow a following in the Republican party, and her experience in office is quite narrow as well.
I haven't mentioned Ron Paul yet. He has a strong but narrow following in the Republican Party, so that limits how well he can do. But I do think that he will find Jon more to his liking than any other plausible candidate, and may even swing his support to Jon somewhere along the line. I say this because some of Jon's position (civil unions, limited interventionism abroad, gun rights, fiscal conservatism and accountibility, etc.) are actually more libertarian than they are 'liberal'.
Jon Huntsman has very strong domestic (private and public) and foreign policy credentials. He has an attractive personality with a strong family, and is intelligent and engaging. He is a thoughtful pragmatist, on the center-right of the political spectrum. I personally think that having served as a diplomat to China in a Democratic administration will end up being a plus for him, even with a Republican electorate, who (except for the hard right) like to see a bipartisan foreign policy. Furthermore, I see Jon bringing hope and light and stability to what has been a pretty dark and unstable field of candidates.
I think that Jon will soon gain the imprimatur of the Bush clan, which will bring him a lot of assets (and I hope he doesn't bargain too much away in the process). The one big question mark that I see is Fox News and what their take on him will be. My hope is that they will be 'fair and balanced' and give him a chance, despite his perceived centrism. My fear is that they will go after him and that this could make things difficult. Of course, the upside to this is that this could gain him a following in the non-Fox viewing public.
Two more points that I think will be novel to most people and that will help Jon down the road. First, Jon gave the speech to nominate Sarah Palin at the 2008 Republican convention. I'm sure she hasn't forgotten that. Plus the fact that they were both governors in the West. And second, I can see Glenn Beck endorsing Jon, given their common Mormon heritage and Glenn's adulation of Jon's father, Jon Huntman's Sr. Beck has an independent streak in him, and his support could swing a lot of conservatives to Jon. Not sure these things will happen, but it's possible.
So, here's my initial prediction for the 2012 Republican nomination process. I see Jon coming in second or third in Iowa, with Michele Bachmann coming in first. Generally, the top two or three winners go on to New Hampshire.
The next test would be the New Hampshire primary, and in 2008, John McCain beat Mitt Romney there, 37% to 31%. My guess is that that is pretty close to what Jon's margin of victory will be over Mitt.
Next stop is the Nevada caucuses, which Jon should be able to win, given its so close to his Utah base and has that Western sensibility that favors Jon's candidacy.
In South Carolina, the next primary, Jon will run up a victory that will be not a plurality but a possible majority vote. Why do I think that? John McCain and Mike Huckabee won 63% of the vote in S.C., to Romney's 15%. Jon has the McCain people as his advisors (and he may well have McCain's endorsement as well by that time), and many Huckabee supporters like Jon's social conservatism (stemming from his Mormon faith) and his genteel, positive, almost Southern-like personality. The current youthful Republican governor Nikki Haley has said good words about Jon as well.
Frankly, I think the race will effectively be over by the end of the South Carolina primary, and the rest of it will be coasting into the finish line at the Republican National Convention in the end of August in Tampa, Florida. If that were to happen, it would allow Jon to begin positioning himself for the general election very early in the race.
Now, obviously, that is a best-case scenario, and things don't often work out that way. So all this hinges on no major missteps or revelations. Let's see what happens.