Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Dueling Mormons in New Hampshire

I don't expect today's New Hampshire primary to be anything like as exciting as last week's Iowa caucuses were. All the polling has consistently shown a strong lead for Mitt Romney. He's very probably going to win. I know. But secretly, I'm hoping New Hampshire wil surprise us. It wouldn't be the first time, after all.

Substantial as Mittens' lead is, it's slipped six points since last Wednesday, from 43% to 37%. He's still 20 points ahead of likely second place Ron Paul, but tied with fellow Mormon Jon Huntsman in Dixville Notch's well publicized midnight voting. Where did those six points go, you may be wondering? Straight to Huntsman, it seems.

Less than a week ago, Huntsman was polling around 8%. The latest polls show him surging up to 18%, running neck and neck with Ron Paul. Considering his dismal .6% finish in Iowa, a second place finish here would be the shot of adrenaline he needs to make it through South Carolina, and on to Florida.

To be fair, Huntsman's meager .6% of Iowans was more or less what he expected. He took a pass on the caucuses to focus on more moderate New Hampshire, saying, "They pick corn in Iowa. They pick presidents in New Hampshire." It took a while, but it's starting to look like that gamble may pay off in a big way.

Despite, or perhaps thanks to, his relatively low profile, Huntsman has earned something of a cult following as the Democrats' favorite Republican candidate. Unlike many of his opponents, he is not completely batshit insane, which does hold a certain appeal. He's the only member of the GOP field who unambiguously believes in evolution. He not ony preaches, but has practiced bipartisanship, serving as President Obama's ambassador to China. He's unapologetically intelligent. And he's really funny on tv. These are all excellent qualities in a person, presidential contender or not.

Huntsman is without question the Republican candidate I'd most like to have dinner with. Actually, he's the only one I can imagine being in the same room with without trying to make him cry. I'm sure it would make for an interesting evening, but a contentious one as well. While his support for same sex civil unions, though not marriage, renders Huntsman far and away the most moderate of the GOP contenders, a look at a few more of his positions shows an abiding commitment to conservative values.

He is relentlessly anti-choice. He wants to repeal health care reform, and to eliminate the employer tax deduction for contributing to health care coverage. He wants to, "streamline," the FDA approval process, making it easier for drug companies to bring new meds to market without demonstrating efficacy or safety. His statements on energy policy are factually sloppy, and would prioritize greenhouse gas producing fossil fuels above investment in sustainable energy sources. Where he initially voiced his belief in the human contribution to climate change, he has recently back pedalled substantially, falling in line with his fellow Republicans in saying the science is inconclusive. Disappointing, that was.

No one expects Huntsman to do much of anything in South Carolina, where a more evangelical electorate's not-Romney vote will likely be split between Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. At present, he's polling below Steven Colbert, but as Colbert won't be on the ballot, maybe some of his supporters will shift to Huntsman on election day. A strong showing today would probably send him directly onto Florida, whose primary is shaping up to be a deciding factor in the GOP nomination. I hope Florida has learned from its past mistakes, and is ready to handle the responsibility, but I remain skeptical.

By Gaije Kushner

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