I had planned to write a column explaining why Republican voters should give Jon Huntsman a second look. The timing was right: less than four weeks until New Hampshire. There had been a slight increase in Huntsman’s polling numbers, and other columnists were hesitantly fanning the flames of a possible, if improbable, victory. He’s a politician whose virtues I felt had not yet been reflected in the polls. I believed that, unlike other, less deserving candidates, he hadn’t yet been given his turn in the media cycle.
Then I drove to New Hampshire and watched him debate Newt Gingrich for an hour and a half.
It seemed to be a great opportunity for Huntsman to share the stage — and a captive audience of journalists and voters — with the frontrunner. Moreover, the debate topic would play to the former Utah governor’s strength: foreign policy.
The opportunity was missed. Rather than seizing the moment to make what I think is a compelling case for both his worldview and his qualifications for the presidency, Huntsman put his own daughter to sleep in the front of the auditorium. (Gingrich graciously took the credit.) If, as New York magazine’s John Heilemann suggested, Huntsman’s strategy at the debate was to damage Romney by helping Gingrich siphon votes from the Romney campaign, he probably succeeded. If his strategy was to attract voters away from Romney to him, he failed.
In Monday’s debate, Huntsman showed no desire to be president, certainly not when compared with Romney — or even Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, and Ron Paul. Gingrich really wants to be president, and had nothing to lose by sharing his spotlight with the former ambassador to China. But Huntsman, who had the most to gain if he had stepped up to the plate and challenged Gingrich (or at least taken a few shots at Romney), didn’t even come close to drawing blood — except perhaps his own.
I first saw Jon Huntsman speak last July at Dartmouth. He spoke thoughtfully and knowledgeably on foreign policy and seemed a rare, and welcome, voice of reason. But right after the speech, he skipped town to attend his son’s induction-day ceremony at the Naval Academy, leaving behind supporters and journalists who wanted to talk with him. I found this a questionable “good parent” excuse, but I brushed it aside at the time. There is something noble in wanting to be a good dad, but I wondered if he understood that when you run for president there’s a tacit acknowledgement that parental duties will suffer.