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Politics

In White House Race, Huntsman Would Crowd Romney

Both have similar backgrounds, and face similar hurdles.

There’s no formal quota system for the Republican presidential field for 2012.

In truth, though, there’s probably room for just one wealthy, telegenic Mormon who served as governor and appeals to moderates. That’s bad news for either former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney or former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.

Romney, who lost the 2008 GOP nomination to Sen. John McCain of Arizona, is busy lining up advisers and A-list fundraising pros, hoping name recognition from the last race will help him stand out in a lineup of other former governors in a race that has no front-runner.

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Huntsman is stepping down in May as U.S. ambassador to China, hoping to give himself some distance from President Obama as he tests the waters for a potential challenge of the guy who is technically his boss.

Romney and Huntsman are so alike, in résumé and demeanor, that one could stand in as the stunt double for the other. Both have amassed personal fortunes. Both appeal to moderates and independents, arguing that makes them electable in November 2012. And both will be pressed to explain ties to Democrats or Democratic policies, and will have to fight the perception that they are not conservative enough to appeal to the Tea Party and others in the vocal and dominant right wing of the GOP.

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Those last points are central to the chances Republicans have of making Obama a one-term president. A polarizing conservative who would appeal to the party base in the primaries -- especially in the South -- would likely not beat Obama. It’s probably what Obama dreams about at night -- facing a divisive, sharp-tongued GOP candidate who would drive independents, women, Hispanics and moderates to him.

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With Romney or Huntsman on the ballot in November, Obama might be having nightmares. More states would be in play and more resources would have to be used by the incumbent.

But the path for Romney or Huntsman to claim the Republican nomination is steep. The most committed GOP voters, those most likely to take part in primaries and caucuses, will seek inspiration from, and pledge their support to, a conservative who speaks and thinks like they do about religion, small government, the deficit and social issues.

On these counts, challengers will portray Romney and Huntsman as less than pure.

Romney, for example, will be painted as the driving force behind a Massachusetts health care overhaul that became the template for Obama’s sweeping national health law, which many Republicans now want to reverse.

And Huntsman will be tarred for working for the enemy, despite his view that he was serving the country when he accepted Obama’s offer to be America’s top dog in China. Opponents will also skewer Huntsman for his complaints as governor that Washington’s stimulus package needed to be larger. That won’t sit well with those in the GOP who see bailout money as a deficit driver.

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Another problem that Romney and Huntsman face won’t be openly addressed by their GOP rivals for the nomination, but it will bubble away beneath the surface and probably, sadly, boil over on the Internet.

The issue is religion. Every other candidate will say it doesn’t matter that they are Mormons. But it does matter to some voters, especially those who tend to play an outsize role in GOP primaries. A Pew Research Center poll conducted just months before the start of the 2008 primary season found about a quarter of Republicans saying they were less likely to vote for a Mormon. Among white evangelical Protestants, the uncertainty was even higher -- 36% overall and a startling 41% among those who attended church weekly.

The election calendar also works against Romney and Huntsman. The states with the earliest primaries -- Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina -- all tend to favor conservative candidates. The moderates have to hope no clear front-runner emerges after those three primaries, and that one of them can survive a series of midpack finishes to be a factor on Super Tuesday, when delegate-rich states such as California, New York and New Jersey have their say.

Here, the similarities threaten to sink both candidates. If they split the moderate vote in early states with relatively few moderate voters, they risk finishing so far back in the pack of conservatives that they can’t raise the money or enthusiasm to last until Super Tuesday.

Before they can distance themselves from the crowded GOP primary field, Romney and Huntsman have to find ways to distinguish themselves from each other.

If one or the other manages that, there’s a good chance that candidate can stay in the race for the long haul.

But if that doesn’t happen, if they remain interchangeable parts, the GOP right will probably leave both Romney and Huntsman feeling left out.

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