GOP Contenders Making Moves For 2012

Jon Huntsman, the Obama administration's ambassador to China and a former governor of Utah, is leaving his post in Beijing to test the waters for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. He's one of the latest Republicans stepping onto the track for the presidential race. Host Scott Simon talks with Matthew Continetti of The Weekly Standard about the GOP pool and its strategy for 2012.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

The Tea Party is just one constituency that the 2012 Republican candidates will have to deal with to win their party's nomination next year. The other possible candidates grew this week. Ambassador Jon Huntsman announced that he will leave his post in China. Of course, speculation was rampant that he's going to run for president.

Joined in the studio now by Matthew Continetti. He's opinion editor of The Weekly Standard.

Matthew, welcome back. Thanks for being with us.

Mr. MATTHEW CONTINETTI (Opinion editor, The Weekly Standard): Thanks for having me.

SIMON: And tell us about the significance of Ambassador Huntsman. Because two years ago, President Obama's political advisors thought he was so potentially appealing they found a way to get him on the other side of the world.

Mr. CONTINETTI: That's right. And now he seems to want to come back to our side of the world and for some reason thinks he has a shot at winning the Republican presidential nomination. I have to say I'm a little bit skeptical of his chances.

SIMON: He has foreign policy experience, a lot of money, if I may, handsome in a very silvery way...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: ...which some of us favor. There were a lot of people who two years ago thought he was exactly the answer.

Mr. CONTINETTI: It just shows you how quickly our politics changes. And who's to say? Maybe that profile of what Republicans want will be different in January of 2012 in the Iowa caucuses than it is right now. But I can tell you right now what Republicans want is someone who has limited government credentials. They want someone who can tell them with all honesty and directness that they will do everything they can to repeal the health care overhaul.

They want someone who is rock solid on the social issues. We forget all this talk about limited government over the past couple of years. Social issues remain in many ways the defining issues of the Republican Party, especially the Republican grassroots.

SIMON: Social issues being what, marriage equality?

Mr. CONTINETTI: Yeah, traditional marriage, right to life, those sorts of issues, stem cells, a place of religion in public life. All of these things are very much a part of the Republican base. You forget the huge number of Republicans are conservative Christians and those factors are what drive them to the polls.

SIMON: Now just a few months ago pundits believed that the Democrats got kind of hit on the head by a two by four by the sensation that they hadn't paid enough attention to the unemployment rate. Are Republicans who are concerned mostly with social issues and size of government issues tempting the same fate?

Mr. CONTINETTI: Perhaps. I mean you look at Mitt Romney, who I think is right now the front-runner for the nomination, a very vulnerable front-runner for the Republican nomination, and he certainly feels that what gives him an edge this year is his knowledge of the economy. He said in interview after interview that what the country needs in 2012 is someone who understands business, someone who understands how economies work. And so I think you'll see that message coming from him. Now, why are you going to see that message in particular? Well, he's not necessarily trusted by the social groups.

If you turn to another candidate who I think is in the top tier should he decide to run for president, Mike Huckabee, he has more vulnerability on the economic side of the ledger but, of course, is rock solid with the social conservatives; has such close ties, is one of them, used their support to win Iowa in 2008. So you're going to see different aspects of the coalition come into fore and support different candidates.

SIMON: And the Tea Party?

Mr. CONTINETTI: I think any Republican nominee wants their vote. But, you know, the question is: the Tea Party is a kind of a complex chemical compound, and sometimes can blow up in your face. And so I think Republicans, I hope, and the Tea Party has learned a lesson, that it's not only enough to have someone who's very good on the sides of government questions, you also need someone who's going to be able to talk to the independents, get the independent support and someone who doesn't necessarily scare off the center of the electorate.

SIMON: Well, that, does that leave Governor Huntsman to see himself in that position?

Mr. CONTINETTI: I think he could. I mean but you look at other - Huntsman in the past has said kind things about cap-and-trade legislation. That's a nonstarter in any GOP primary. He's said certain things about moderating the GOP stance on social issues. That's not going to fly. It's just - it's hard for me personally to see a place where he can, a space where he can fill in these upcoming contests.

Now I will say this - any nomination fight is a process of elimination. And I think a candidate, another candidate we haven't mentioned, the former governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty. I think one of the reasons behind Pawlenty's campaign is not only is he a successful two-term governor who is a conservative and has demonstrated an ability to reach out to independents, one of the reasons he's also running is when he looks at the field of candidates, especially the big-time celebrities, Romney, Huckabee, possibly Palin and Newt Gingrich, well, they all have flaws. So I think if you're Tim Pawlenty, or if you're someone like Jon Huntsman, you say, well, all these celebrities have huge flaws and those flaws will be exposed, which means that it could be a moment of whose the last man standing gets the nominations.

SIMON: Andrew Continetti with the Weekly Standard, thanks so much.

Mr. CONTINETTI: Thank you.

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