As Republican presidential aspirants assembled Tuesday night in Nevada for their umpteenth debate, it was clearer than ever that Republicans have gotten exactly what they had coming.
Their nominating process, controlled by the religious warriors and anti-government agitators who dominate straw polls, has reached its logical conclusion: The hottest candidate in the field is Herman Cain, a fast-food tycoon who never heard of neoconservatism, has never held office, has no foreign policy and a three-digit number for a domestic policy, and likes to joke about electrocuting illegal immigrants.
By contrast, Jon Huntsman, governor, ambassador, the man who in a normal political environment would be the most qualified and formidable candidate in the race, wasn’t even on the stage.
A system that rejects a Jon Huntsman in favor of a Herman Cain isn’t a primary process. It is a primal scream.
Facing the humiliation of being topped by the pizza man, Huntsman boycotted the Nevada debate — given his poor standing in the polls, he might not have been invited anyway — and retreated to New Hampshire to make his last stand.
It says a great deal about the state of the Republican nominating process that Huntsman is floundering while Mr. Pizza soars. “It’s a new world,” Huntsman told me as we spoke Tuesday in the lobby of his Manchester hotel. “You throw out anyone with any connection to real-world experience in government.”
Huntsman will almost certainly fail, but that doesn’t make what he is doing any less important. He’s betting everything — “a Vegas move,” he called it — that there is still some constituency in the Republican Party for reason and moderation. While Mitt Romney has found success by running away from the moderate indiscretions of his past, Huntsman is begging the voters who chose John McCain over George W. Bush in 2000, not to mention Henry Cabot Lodge over Barry Goldwater in 1964, to re-establish the political center.
I detected some bitterness as he spoke of being hobbled by his impressive resume and getting no credit for his solid record of conservatism on guns, abortion and economics.
“If you don’t shove people away and stay in your little corner of Republican Party ideology, you’re seen as something other than pure,” he told me. “If you’ve worked on some of the so-called nontraditional issues like the environment, if you’ve crossed party lines to serve your country … that can be seen as an easy strike against you — whereas in a perfect world that would be seen as a strength.”
Certainly this is not a perfect world.
As Cain and the others in Las Vegas prepared for a debate that would potentially reach millions, Huntsman was in New Hampshire reaching dozens. The man introducing Huntsman at a law-firm-hosted forum read the bio haltingly, as if unfamiliar with it.
Huntsman labored to project momentum. “I came in as a margin-of-error candidate,” he said. “We’re now up to the low double-digits.” (Actually, he’s at 8 percent in a recent WMUR New Hampshire poll, versus Romney’s 37 percent.)
He spoke for 12 minutes. The lawyers fidgeted. “Questions?” he asked. Silence. “Please,” he said. “Lawyers are never shy.”
It’s probably too late for Huntsman. His campaign is in debt and he’s getting 1 percent to 2 percent in national polls. But in New Hampshire, Huntsman has finally found a compelling message. He has shifted from his initial dubious theme — the need for civility — to the worthier goal of fighting for the political center.
In theory, a call to reason could work in New Hampshire, where the far right commands less than a third of the GOP electorate. At least two-thirds of voters here haven’t yet made up their minds, and Huntsman strategist John Weaver thinks they can be persuaded. “It’s a fork in the road between seriousness and circus,” he said. Weaver has some credibility on this point: He was the architect of McCain’s upset here in 2000.
Huntsman, already out of money, is running out of time. But at least he has a message.
“The work of the nation isn’t getting done because we’ve got the extreme elements on both sides that are barking at each other, and the entire middle has been hollowed out,” he said. His task: “You put forward a message that addresses that, and you wonder if people are ready for that.”
I suspect he already knows the answer. But it’s still a stand worth taking.
Dana Milbank’s email address is email@example.com.