Utah Governor Jon Huntsman continues to stake out a conspicuously moderate persona -- this time in an ABC interview regarding Specter. At first glance, his tactics seem foolish for a potential 2012 candidate. "Conspicuous moderation" isn't exactly sweeping the GOP primary electorate by storm these days.
But still, it's a smart strategy for a least a couple of reasons. First, he's occupying that space by himself. The others -- Palin, Sanford, Jindal, even Romney and Huckabee -- are all fighting it out for the hearts and minds of Limbaugh Nation. That particular market, as they say, is saturated.
Huntsman has far less competition to be the "moderate reform" candidate. Indeed, it's not crazy to imagine someone like Huntsman winning with a plurality of the non-Limbaughs (which is essentially what McCain did).
Second, I think Huntsman's position will grow stronger as the GOP's fortunes grow dimmer. It's very possible that the GOP has yet to hit rock bottom. That moment would come if they (quite plausibly) lose another 3 or 4 seats in 2010.
At that point, a real panic would set in (one that should have already occurred) and demand for "reform" candidates will skyrocket. And as a reform candidate, Huntsman would be superior to even McCain, who had to spend 2005 to 2008 huggy-bearing Bush to win the nomination.
And regarding that "panic"... maybe I'm dreaming this, but the Specter defection seems to have taken more wind out of the Congressional GOP's sails than even the Obama election. I remember a bunch of "we've got our mojo back" stories during the stimulus fight. And indeed, the reflexive opposition and demogoguery sounded like a party who felt they would soon be back in power. Or at least who felt like they had little to fear in opposing the new President.
Specter, however, has jarred them. And his defection has opened political space for some rather sharp intra-party critiques -- ones presumably festering during the Great Fox News Tea Party Bash of ’08 ©. In this respect, Huntsman has positioned himself well -- and ahead of the curve.
One last note -- I'm sure I disagree with 99% of Huntsman's policies, but I don't viscerally dislike him. It really doesn't take much effort to strike some basic conciliatory notes on things like gay rights and climate change.
Granted, my non-dislike probably means that he can't possibly win a GOP primary. But still, it's hard to win a general when you set out to make roughly 45% of the country hate you. People should think about stuff like that during primaries.