Though it’s obviously really early to start projecting which Republicans will seek to unseat President Obama in 2012, Mitt Romney won the annual straw poll held by the Conservative Political Action Convention yesterday, garnering 20 percent of the votes. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal followed Romney with 14 percent, Texas Rep. Ron Paul with 13 percent, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin with 13 percent, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich with 10 percent and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee with 7 percent, while others on the ballot included South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist.
Absent from the ballot was one possible 2012 Republican presidential contender who’s not getting much press right now but who I see as a major player in 2012 – Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, Jr. Huntsman’s absence from the CPAC straw poll is likely due to his absence from CPAC, as well as the fact that he likely risked being booed off the stage for some of his views. Huntsman has emerged as an unapologetic spokesman for a new brand of Republicanism that falls somewhere between moderate Northeastern Republicanism and the far-right conservatism so prevalent in the Sun Belt:
Huntsman thinks the party’s challenge is more profound, owing less to its excessive spending practices during the Bush era than to sweeping demographic and political changes that threaten to consign
Republicans to a long-term minority status and confine their appeal to narrow sections of the country.
The party needs to be more intellectually rigorous, and to compete for the votes of the young, the elites and minorities, he said in an interview with POLITICO. To do so, the GOP needs to tack toward the middle on environment, gay rights and immigration. And, yes, Ronald Reagan is to be admired – but as much for his oft-overlooked pragmatism as for his conservative principles.
If it can find traction with the conservative base of the Republican Party, Huntsman’s message could be a powerful counter to President Obama in 2012, and it could expand the Republican Party’s base, which has been narrowing in recent elections. If the Republican Party is going to rebound from the defeats of 2006 and 2008, it must broaden its appeal, but it remains to be seen if Jon Huntsman’s message will resonate with Republican supporters – or whether he’ll just be “booed off the stage.”