Republican Jon Huntsman signaled an unconventional presidential bid when he teased his campaign launch last month with videos of a motocross rider in the Utah mountains.
But his keynote speech on Thursday to an environmental group that backs cap-and-trade regulations reviled by most in his party is drawing even bigger double-takes.
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What timing. As the tea party wing of the GOP fights for smaller government, as gridlock on Capitol Hill over the debt ceiling pushes the government toward default, Huntsman will address the politically moderate Republicans for Environmental Protection in Washington.
“There’s no conceivable way you can make sense of this and an announced desire to be the Republican nominee,” said Michael McKenna, a GOP strategist who specializes in environmental and energy policy. “It’s almost like he’s intentionally pissing off some very large chunk of the party.”
Huntsman’s appearance at the second annual Teddy Roosevelt Dinner is also a reminder that as Utah governor he was the chief architect of the Western Climate Initiative, a regional cap-and-trade program. As a presidential candidate, Huntsman has renounced cap and trade.
“He does not support cap and trade, but he does believe that emissions need to be dealt with in a pro-growth manner that doesn’t stifle job creation,” said Huntsman spokesman Tim Miller. “He is also going to talk about the debt cancer and the need for serious long-term solutions to dealing with entitlements and discretionary spending and reforming the tax code.”
Huntsman is the only major GOP candidate fully backing the budget deal touted by House Speaker John Boehner, which aims to cut spending equal to the debt-ceiling increase. Rivals, including the surging Rep. Michele Bachmann, are taking a hard-line approach to increasing the government’s borrowing capacity.
Huntsman’s position on the debt talks, along with his speech to the environmental group, reflect the central question looming over his campaign as he stagnates in polls: Will his less confrontational, more mainstream message resonate with voters at a time when compromise seems to be politically taboo?
“He is speaking to a microscopically small segment of the Republican primary that has no impact on the primary,” said Florida-based GOP strategist Rick Wilson, who is not aligned with any candidate. “Last time I looked at the polls, environmental concerns ranked somewhere near fear of getting hit by an asteroid.”
Giving back-to-back speeches in Washington does afford Huntsman one thing he needs desperately: national media coverage.
“Right now, he needs any oxygen he can get,” Wilson said.
Not to mention that coming to Washington gives Huntsman a chance to sleep in his own bed and see his family. Huntsman bought a $3.6 million home in Washington in April, shortly before he returned from his post in Beijing as U.S. ambassador to China.
Huntsman accepted the invitation from the environmental group months ago. His two-day trip to Washington includes a fundraiser at his home, a FOX News interview, and a speech to the College Republicans.
Republicans for Environmental Protection has actively endorsed cap-and-trade to curb emissions—an approach the vast majority of the GOP has rejected, tarring it as an “energy tax” that represents an overreach of government authority.
Introducing Huntsman will be Rep. David Reichert, R-Wash., one of only eight Republicans who voted in favor of a Democrat-authored cap-and-trade bill in 2009. Former Rep. Bob Inglis, R-S.C., who says his support of climate change policy cost him his job in 2010, is also planning to attend. Inglis is now marshalling resources around a future campaign to lobby his former GOP colleagues to act on climate change.
Among the groups who have purchased tables at the sold-out event are General Electric, Duke Energy, and Exelon—all of whom worked closely with House and Senate Democrats to craft cap-and-trade bills between 2008 and 2010.
Huntsman is expected to lay out an energy and environment agenda that calls for production of fossil fuel and alternative energy. David Jenkins, spokesman for Republicans for Environmental Protection, disputed the notion that Huntsman’s appearance would cost him in the primaries.
“People confuse the noisy fringe of the Republican Party with the will of the party as a whole,” he said.
Huntsman’s campaign hinges on a strong showing in New Hampshire, where the first-in-the-nation primary is open to independent voters, who will outnumber tea party hard-liners on primary day, noted Fergus Cullen, a former state party chairman.
“The civility angle and the pragmatic angle has a market,” said Cullen, who is hosting a gathering for Huntsman at his home on Wednesday but has not endorsed him. “I have watched over the past year as one candidate after another tried to win over the tea party activists and ignored the vast majority of Republicans, and I think Huntsman speaks to that broad mainstream.”
After news of Huntsman’s campaign manager’s departure leaked last week, senior adviser John Weaver promised the campaign was “moving into phase two, which will be more aggressive from a messaging and tactical standpoint.”
But Huntsman’s ramped-up rhetoric still pales in comparison to his fire-breathing rivals like Bachmann.
“We’re still the country that everyone in the world looks to for financial leadership. We’ve got to find a solution here,” Huntsman said on Tuesday of his support of Boehner’s plan on CBS’ The Early Show.
“Civility can coexist with the facts. In a race, you’ve got to point out your differences,” he said. “Nobody wants to rip down somebody’s integrity. It’s the personal attacks that I think Americans hate so much about politics these days. Stick to the issues.”