The young pragmatist wing of today's Republican party has felt rather homeless in the early phase of the 2012 campaign. And that's why newly announced presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman could be emerging as the candidate of choice for younger GOP activists concerned that the tea-party movement could kill the party's chances in the 2012 general election.
Take yesterday's presidential announcement speech from the former Utah governor. More or less on impulse, a young GOP activist named Stephen Richer decided to gather a bunch of buddies to roadtrip up to New Jersey for the event, expecting a handful of his DC-based peers to join in the entourage.
But not long after Richer, a 25-year-old Utah native who works as a policy researcher in DC, started an email thread to discuss the plan, he had recruited an entire network of College Republicans itching to make the trip. And then he realized: We're gonna need a bigger car.
By Monday night, Richer counted about 50 names on his list of RSVP's, mostly Republican interns, Utah transplants and other conservative research assistants. And he managed to get some New Jersey GOP organizers to charter a bus.
At 5:30 a.m. Tuesday morning, about 40 bleary-eyed 20-somethings wearing the Republican uniform--the men in khakis, button down shirts and blazers, the women in skirts and blouses--met in downtown DC and piled into a coach for the four-hour journey.
For many of them, Huntsman is someone they not only agree with, but a contender who can go head to head with President Obama.
"The most important thing is to pick someone who can win in the general election," says joyrider David Cramer, 23, a student at Brigham Young University doing a summer internship on Capitol Hill. "If we elect a nominee just to get someone who passes this pie-in-the-sky ideological purity test, then we lose the general election. We need someone who can beat Obama. That's the bottom line."
After a few wrong turns and a dead-end, the bus arrived at Liberty Park just moments before Huntsman was slated to speak. The Huntsmanites spilled out from the bus and charge the stage, some in a full sprint. They made it just in time, and it's a good thing for Huntsman that they did: Not counting members of the press, the DC road trippers nearly double the size of the crowd there to see the governor make his announcement.
The event is sober and respectful--a flashback of sorts to the Eisenhower-era GOP that was probably the dominant political outlook for many of these kids' grandparents. "I don't think you need to run down someone's reputation in order to run for the office of president," Huntsman declared, as the Statue of Liberty towered behind him. "Of course we'll have our disagreements. That's what campaigns are all about. But I want you to know, that I respect my fellow Republican candidates. And I respect the president of the United States."
Huntsman, who left his post as Utah's governor to serve as the U.S. ambassador to China for the Obama Administration in 2009, evokes mixed reactions from within conservative Republican circles. Some view him as a RINO (Republican in Name Only) and even a closet liberal for championing civil unions for same-sex couples, for his openness to immigration and energy reform and and support for Obama's economic stimulus program. Others consider him a traitor to the conservative cause for merely serving as a diplomat under Obama. Before the rise of the tea party, Huntsman's views on many of the issues were considered mainstream in the Republican Party. But times have changed.
With Huntsman now an officially announced candidate, the gang climbs back into the bus, chows down some pizza, and sits tight for another four-hour ride back to DC. But they don't seem to be too disappointed about riding nearly nine hours for a 15-minute speech.
Although many who woke up as early as 3:30 AM to catch the bus were just curious to see a presidential announcement, the Mormon, high-school dropout rocker and motocross rider does have a fierce, albeit small fan base. And while these young Huntsmanites respect the energy of the GOP's small-government tea party base, they're deeply skeptical of the support a tea-party-style candidacy would win in a general election campaign.
To some in the group, all the other candidates fall short. Kelsey Callahan, a 20-year-old conservative activist, has plenty to say about the other GOP contenders.
Newt Gingrich: "There are better ways to sell a book."
Herman Cain: "Not charismatic enough."
Mitt Romney: "Huntsman is Romney's worst nightmare."
These young GOP'ers are drawn to Huntsman's willingness to work across the aisle, his focus on economics, and they even like the "nice guy" image he's building. And no, they don't care that he worked with the Obama administration in China or that he's okay with consenting gay couples forming a legal union.
"The Tea Partiers are going to vote for the Tea Partiers, and they're extreme in their policies," says Jacqui Bird, a 21-year-old Republican Capitol Hill intern. "If you want to get something done, I think the moderate approach is the most realistic."
But while Huntsman may be able to fill a bus with College Republicans willing to lose a good night's sleep to see him, he has a long way to go to turn that spark into a wildfire. He surprised the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans last week with a second-place finish in the conference straw poll, but still lacks national name recognition. According to a recent Pew Research poll, only 35 percent of Americans have even heard of him, making Huntsman the least-known candidate besides Gary Johnson, the libertarian former New Mexico governor.
At the same time, though, Huntsman is only getting started. He's the eighth person to officially announce a candidacy, months behind his competitors and missed the first two nationally televised debates. If Huntsman plays his cards right, maybe next time, guys like Stephen Richer will need a bigger bus.