A Ticket to Ride?

Jon Huntsman’s third-place finish in New Hampshire, with 17 per cent of the vote, is being characterized by reporters this morning as “disappointing” and “unremarkable.”

I don’t agree.

I think he accomplished a lot in New Hampshire. He climbed into double digits, broadened his appeal, demonstrated surprising support (42 per cent) among those voters who identified themselves in exit polls as Tea Party supporters, improved his style on the stump and actually seemed to be enjoying himself. He even showed a sense of humor here and there.

Huntsman also managed to sharpen his image as a true conservative. He reminded voters that he instituted a flat tax as Governor of Utah, has a strong record as a fiscal conservative and was among the first to voice support for Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan. No liberal, he.

Most importantly, Huntsman remained true to his principles. “I am who I am,” he declared at a rally in Exeter. “I’ve done what I’ve done, and you can take a look at my record. I am not going to contort myself into a pretzel. And I am not going to sign any of these silly pledges.” Take that, Grover Norquist.

He made no apologies for his more moderate positions on climate change and illegal immigration, in contrast to his more wild-eyed competitors. And he defended his service as President Obama’s Ambassador to China, arguing that he was putting his country before party.

Is all this enough to win the Republican nomination? Probably not. He heads today to South Carolina, with its greater proportions of evangelical and deep-vein conservatives. That’s not Huntsman country. But watch closely, if he continues to make progress in the Palmetto state, Florida is next and significantly more hospitable to his brand.

Also, if Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum succeed in their joint efforts to erode Mitt Romney’s image and base, Huntsman will pick up some of the disaffected. He has repeatedly presented himself as the candidate most feared by the Obama campaign. That is true. The Chicago gang doesn’t waste much of its time or money on Huntsman because they don’t think he can gain enough momentum to win the nomination. Not yet.

Arguably, Ron Paul is Huntsman’s biggest obstacle to winning a larger portion of primary votes. Paul’s 23 per cent in New Hampshire was partially at Huntsman’s expense. We will have to see what impact the good doctor has in South Carolina.

A second-place finished in New Hampshire would have caused people to sit up and take notice. But 17 per cent is better than one per cent. Just ask Rick Perry.

Presidential primary campaigns have a way of either enhancing a candidate’s standing and reputation, or diminishing it. Ronald Reagan was taken more seriously as a national figure after 1976, for example, while Senator John McCain’s is less of a voice in his party and in the nation after running so badly (and choosing Sarah Palin) in 2008. A candidate goes up or down once he or she joins the fray, but rarely stays the same.

Jon Huntsman has already enhanced his stature. He was little known outside of Utah and Beijing a year ago. Now he and his beautiful family are widely recognized. Even his critics acknowledge his foreign policy expertise. As demonstrated in New Hampshire, Republicans are starting to give him a look. Is that “disappointing,” or “unremarkable.” Not at all.

Is it “a ticket to ride?” Yes. But how far, remains to be seen.

The Voice of Reason: Ron Paul?

I know Ron Paul can be zany, especially when it comes to abolishing the Fed, returning to the gold standard and reducing the federal government to a mom-and-pop-sized enterprise.

He certainly has his eccentricities, such as refusing to wear a seat belt in a car, or a helmet when bicycling, both of which he apparently regards as nanny-state interferences in his constitutionally-protected right to kill himself.

But in last night’s Republican debate, when his fellow candidates were falling over themselves in declaring their willingness to bomb Iran back to the stone age, he was the grown-up, the one voice that warned that what they were talking about would be “another Iraq,” or worse. He also repeated his call to get U.S. troops out of Afghanistan and generally to avoid meddling in other nations’ affairs.

Later, when Newt Gingrich was rolling out his idea for Congress to subpoena federal judges who make controversial rulings, and Michelle Bachmann was cheering him on, it was Ron Paul who spoke up and reminded the former Speaker that the constitution has this thing about separation of powers.

Watching at home, I suddenly found myself agreeing with Ron Paul. Ron Paul! He was making sense while the others on the stage were coming unhinged one-by-one. And I was nodding in agreement! Fortunately, no one saw me. My wife was wrapping Christmas presents and the dogs were sleeping. I switched off the set and watched a re-run of The League on my iPad and felt better right away.

The Republican debates can do that to you. I find myself talking back to the television set, laughing and shaking my head. Imagine how Republican contributors feel watching this gong show. Last night’s, the 16th in this series of reality shows, apparently was the last before the Iowa caucuses, now that Donald Trump has withdrawn. Finally, we’ll get to hear from some voters.