Jon Huntsman might have just shrugged off his summer-long jet lag.
The former ambassador to China had his best moment of an otherwise struggling campaign Wednesday night: He was the only candidate on stage able to go toe-to-toe with front-runners Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, trading blows with the two heavyweights not as an underdog but as their equal. Gone was the candidate who once promised civility -- a strategy that got his campaign nowhere -- replaced with one who taunted that he has a better conservative record than his rivals and the best chance to defeat President Obama next year.
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It took all of one question for Huntsman to erase doubts he wasn’t ready for his big moment. He blasted his chief opponent before pivoting to highlight his own background in business, as governor, and diplomat.
“To my good friend, Mitt, 47 just ain't going to cut it, my friend, not when you can be first,” said Huntsman. The number refers to what some commentators have said was Massachusetts' ranking among the states for job creation during the four years Romney served as governor. Sounding confident and quickly dispelling concerns that a sinus infection had robbed him of his voice, Huntsman touted his own resume as the better of the two.
“We've got to remember that to beat President Obama, we have to have somebody who's been in the private sector, understands the fragility of the free market system, has been a successful governor as it relates to job creation, and knows something about this world,” said Huntsman, who worked for his father's chemical conglomerate before serving two terms as Utah's governor.
Huntsman started his campaign from scratch after leaving his job as Obama’s envoy to Beijing -- a post he left the governorship early to take. The campaign began almost the moment he stepped off the long flight home. But despite a symphony of media hype, he apparently wasn’t ready for the tumult of a presidential campaign.
He struggled to climb above even 1 percent in national polls, and his nearly singular focus on New Hampshire has reaped few tangible rewards thus far -- he fired his Granite State campaign manager just last week. His nadir might have come during his first debate, held in Iowa before the straw poll he didn’t bother to compete in, when he appeared nervous and little more than an after-thought on a night Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann took center stage.
On Wednesday, with Bachmann fading and Pawlenty long gone, Huntsman seized his opportunity to become the alternative to the front-running duo of Perry and Romney. On the contentious issue of health care, Huntsman found a way to use the health care reform law he enacted in Utah to split the difference between Perry -- whose state has the nation’s highest level of uninsured -- and Romney, who signed off on a requirement that residents of his state buy health insurance.
“We did better than Rick, in terms of covering the uninsured, and we don't have a mandate,” he said. “It allows the free market to create a marketplace of choices and options for people.
And unlike most of his rivals, he didn’t stop at just vowing to repeal the Democrats’ health care bill -- he offered specifics on how to replace it.
“I believe that once Obamacare is repealed -- and it will be -- the question will then be, what do we do now?” said the ex-governor. “And I'm here to tell you that what we did in Utah is going to be a perfect example of what we do now."
Again and again, he touted his record in Utah -- a strategy that might seem like Campaigning 101 for most candidates. But for most of the summer, Huntsman appeared less interested in highlighting a record that establishes his credentials as a conservative, instead emphasizing his appeal to centrists.
His strategy of presenting himself as the primary’s most moderate candidate hadn’t been chucked, however. Huntsman's most memorable moment might have come when he squared off with Perry about climate change, an issue he has mockingly derided the Texas governor for dismissing as a fraud.
“All I’m saying, in order for the Republican Party to win, we can’t run from science,” Huntsman said. “We can’t run from the mainstream conservative philosophy. We’ve got to win voters.”
Huntsman’s strong performance puts an exclamation mark on what was arguably his campaign’s first good week: He won widespread praise for an economic agenda that The Wall Street Journal called the primary’s new benchmark. Though he still has a long way to climb to become a threat, Huntsman got the strong performance he needed on Wednesday to remain a viable candidate.