THERE WERE plenty of fun moments in last weekend’s GOP debates, such as the point when Rick Perry announced the three government agencies he’d cut, then grinned and held up three fingers to show that he’d finally remembered them all. These debates have come so often that they offer rewards for frequent viewers: political-junkie inside jokes.
But there were also, blessedly, some arguments we haven’t seen before, helpful reminders about the true state of politics in America. My favorite came during Sunday’s “Meet the Press’’ debate, when Mitt Romney attacked Jon Huntsman for serving as ambassador to China under President Obama, and Huntsman aggressively fought back.
“The nation is divided,’’ Huntsman snapped, “because of attitudes like that . . . I will always put my country first.’’
At last, a passionate case for bipartisanship, which, aside from his foreign policy expertise, is Huntsman’s main point of distinction. Yes, he’s the Republican that Democrats like best, and that serves, in certain circles, as a disqualifier - particularly those circles that stake their existence on a vicious partisan divide. “Is Jon Hunstman a Rachel Maddow Republican?’’ the Weekly Standard blared last week, and it wasn’t a compliment.
But if he is a welcome Republican face on MSNBC, that must make him representative of somebody. Sure, there are plenty of fired-up partisans among GOP voters. They’re well-represented among the political junkies who binge on cable news, which leads to more partisan programming, which gets the partisans fired up more. But it’s worth noting that the most popular cable talk shows draw about 3 million viewers apiece, fewer than half of the people who tune into “Winter Wipeout.’’
Those non-junkies might well vote, in decent numbers, in New Hampshire, where independents make up about a third of the electorate. Not all of those folks are moderates or Rachel Maddow fans, but Huntsman has been pitching to them anyway, ignoring more socially conservative Iowa and holding about 170 events across the Granite States. Many - like the one I attended in Portsmouth last week - weren’t likely to light anyone on fire. Huntsman talked about a “trust deficit,’’ put out a tepid call for term limits, but didn’t use bipartisanship as an argument in itself. (He was also as bland as he’s been in most debates; he’s far better one-on-one than on the stump.)
But Huntsman’s “Meet the Press’’ performance, among other factors - intense media attention and, yes, the endorsement from the Globe - might have changed the calculation. Wayne Lesperance, a political science professor at New England College, went to a Huntsman event at a bakery in Henniker yesterday morning, and found people chanting, “country first.’’
The campaign is clearly trying to capitalize. The staff quickly cut a new ad, an extended clip from the “Meet the Press’’ debate. They asked supporters to donate $100,000 so they could put it on TV. By yesterday morning, the campaign had exceeded its fundraising goal and bought airtime in New Hampshire and South Carolina.
I asked Huntsman’s spokesman whether this was a policy shift. Had the governor been prepped to be more aggressive, to put forth a new message about bipartisanship? The response was oblique: “Mitt Romney attacked Governor Huntsman’s service to this country. That’s something that Governor Huntsman won’t sit idly by and listen to.’’
If this was a happy accident, a productive fit of pique, it probably came too late. Still, “country first’’ was John McCain’s strategy in New Hampshire, and it worked twice, Lesperance notes. It may even point to a pathway for Huntsman in socially conservative South Carolina - which also happens to be full of veterans, many of whom served under Democratic presidents.
They might warm, Lesperance said, to another point Huntsman made in the debate: that his two sons are serving in the Navy, with no regard for which party the president happens to come from. They might recall that Mitt Romney once said his own sons were serving their country by helping their dad get elected president.
“There are some contrasts there that they’ve never fully explored,’’ Lesperance said. And a message that a non-political junkie could love.