In the first tea party debate for the eight GOP Presidential hopefuls, it was an evening for fighting words—and every jab Jon Huntsman took was met with confusion and disbelief by the audience --starting with the former Utah Governor joking that Romney’s memoir may have been written by Kurt Cobain.
In the opening volleys of the first debate to be hosted by CNN and the Tea Party Express, Huntsman came out swinging at Romney’s memoir No Apology saying, “I don’t know if that was written by Kurt Cobain or not…”
The reference, if it’s not obvious now—and it wasn’t obvious when Huntsman made it—was to a song written by the '90s-era grunge-rocker titled “All Apologies.”
It was the first WTF, head-scratcher misstep of many for Huntsman, who struggled the rest of the evening to land a blow on any of his fellow GOP opponents—including suggesting that Texas Governor Rick Perry’s failure to secure the U.S. border was “treasonous.”
The event -- televised live from Tampa, Florida -- introduced the contenders with brief biographical segments that even set the candidates up with fighter nicknames—pegging former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum as “the fighter,” Texas congressman Ron Paul as “the Libertarian” and Huntsman as “the diplomat.”
As a man who has been pegged from the start as the middle-of-the-road peacemaker, Huntsman’s own campaign has struggled of late to break out of the role as the nice guy; even though it was a title the campaign owned from the outset, having planned to run a civil campaign that would still be tough on the records and performance of his fellow GOP rivals.
If tonight’s debate is any measure, the Huntsman campaign has more struggling ahead of it.
In response to various questions about reviving the United States’ lagging economy the candidates were given the opportunity to tout their business credentials. For Huntsman, this should have been an easy coup to list the numerous accolades his administration received for being business-friendly during his tenure. “Certainly everyone knows everything’s bigger in Texas, and I know all the smart people reside in Massachusetts, but Utah was number one in job creation,” Huntsman said of his record. But in failing to explain what measures Huntsman executed until late in the debate, he set himself up for an artful reversal by rival Newt Gingrich.
“The American people created more jobs in Utah than under Governor Huntsman, more jobs in Texas than Governor Perry and more jobs in Massachusetts than Governor Romney,” Gingrich said.
Huntsman’s boldest jab was to play off of a comment made by leading GOP contender Rick Perry that the actions of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke could be considered “treasonous.” In an exchange over immigration, where Perry faulted the federal government for failing to enforce immigration laws, Perry argued that it’s impractical to secure the border with one giant fence, favoring more “boots on the ground” to secure the border through enhanced border-patrol agents and other resources to police the nation’s southern border with Mexico.
“First of all, let me say for Rick [Perry] to say you can’t secure the border is pretty much a treasonous comment,” Huntsman said, adding that if elected he would work with all border states to ensure the border was secured. The jab was rushed without specifics as Huntsman quickly moved on to defend Utah’s enactment of a driver’s privilege card for undocumented immigrants. It was a jab that received no applause and that the Trib reported was even met with some booing from the crowd. Huntsman delivered the criticism with the same casual tone he used in touting his record in simplifying a tax code and encouraging private sector growth. It was his strongest criticism of a rival yet and was not even acknowledged by Perry.
Huntsman also slipped in an equally rushed sucker punch against Romney for changing position on various issues. “I think we can spend all night talking about where Mitt’s been on all the issues of the day, but that would take forever,” Huntsman said. Romney, like Perry, took the harmless hit without response.
It was a debate where an animated tea party crowd responded enthusiastically to tough talk from the candidates on the issues and on each other. In one exchange of the evening, CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer followed up with Minnesota congresswoman Michelle Bachmann on how health-care policy should treat a hypothetical, uninsured man who would die without medical help.When Blitzer pressed Bachmann to ask if she should let the man die, one man in the audience howled, “Yes”! In another exchange, Paul was drowned out in boos for having to explain why Islamic terrorists had cited foreign occupation as a reason for their acts of terror.
Amidst this raucous debate, Huntsman threw his best punches and was nimbly countered at every turn.