Yet in most respects Mr Huntsman has an unimpeachably conservative record. He presided over the biggest tax cut in Utah’s history. He instituted health-care reforms of a much less meddling sort than those embraced by Mr Romney when he was governor of Massachusetts. He signed various bills designed to discourage abortion and encourage gun-ownership. He was re-elected in 2008 with 78% of the vote in one of the most fiercely Republican states in the nation, and left office with lofty approval ratings.
Whether Mr Huntsman can appeal to red-blooded Republicans in the primaries will depend in part on the quality of his campaign. Many of the staff he has lined up are veterans of the presidential bids of John McCain, who won the Republican nomination in 2008 despite his reputation as a relative liberal. Mr Huntsman seems quite relaxed on the hustings, taking up an impromptu pool game at a veterans’ club, for example (he lost), and teasing the locals about their accents. Unlike Mr Romney, he seems comfortable in a denim jacket, plaid shirt and corduroy trousers; his wife and two of his daughters accompanied him across New Hampshire in fashionable skinny jeans. His staff is happy to advertise that he dropped out of high school to play in a rock band, and is an avid motorcyclist.
But Mr Huntsman is not exactly the salt of the earth. His father made billions selling packaging to firms like McDonald’s, and worked in the Nixon administration. His stump speech can seem quite esoteric at times, with references to the inaugural speech of William Harrison, America’s ninth president, and to Japan’s “lost decade” of economic stagnation. He keeps banging on about the effects of the public debt on the exchange rate—natural enough for a former ambassador and trade negotiator, perhaps, but hardly the main concern in the eyes of most deficit hawks.
Moreover, Mr Huntsman, like Mr Romney, is a Mormon, a faith viewed with some suspicion by the evangelical Christians who make up a sizeable share of the Republican primary electorate. In fact, Mr Romney and Mr Huntsman are (distant) cousins, and have much in common. They are both sons of billionaire businessmen-turned-politicians; both have presidential looks and picture-perfect families; both are considered ideologically unreliable by many on the right.
Mr Huntsman, however, does not seem racked by doubts. Although he insists he is still “kicking the tyres” and needs to discuss it with his family, Mrs Huntsman says she does not foresee objections of the sort that caused Mr Daniels to pass. He has governed a state, he knows about foreign policy and he oozes confidence; it would be a pity if Mr Huntsman did not run.