TAMPA -- CNN's Wolf Blitzer should begin the Republican presidential debate tonight by asking Jon Huntsman a simple question: "Why are you here?"
The former Utah governor's campaign has no obvious political rationale and is barely a statistical blip in national polls. Since he officially announced his 2012 presidential bid in June, Huntsman has only once (in early August) polled as high as 4 percent. Five of the six most recent national surveys show Huntsman's support among Republican voters at a mere 1 percent -- less than the margin of error. Despite the effective non-existence of his support, however, Huntsman will be among the eight candidates on stage tonight (8 p.m. ET) for the debate at the Florida State Fairgrounds sponsored by the Tea Party Express.
Of course, Blitzer would never question the legitimacy of Huntsman's candidacy for the simple reason that CNN anchor is a leading member of Huntsman's most important constituency, the media.
In announcing Huntsman's inclusion two weeks ago, CNN said that debate participants "needed to achieve a minimum 2 percent threshold in an average of national primary polls," a threshold that Huntsman is now below. Even CNN's own most recent poll, taken in late August, shows Huntsman at 1 percent, the same level of support Huntsman registered in the most recent polls by Gallup, the Washington Post, and Fox News. And those anemic numbers were registered after Huntsman's first debate appearance Aug. 11 in the Iowa GOP debate. This is why I've started referring to Huntsman as "Governor Asterisk," denoting his status as an irrelevant footnote to the GOP 2012 campaign.
The inclusion of Huntsman in nationally televised debates is an irritant to other minor Republican presidential candidates, especially those excluded from the debates. For example, some polls have shown former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson leading Huntsman. But Johnson has been left out of the debates and complained last week to Politico columnist Ben Smith: "I'm going to guess that Huntsman has outspent me 15 to 1, maybe 20 to 1. How is it that even from an aberration standpoint that I can be ahead of him?… I think based on what I've done politically and what I've done in my life that I should have a seat at the table."
What Johnson has not done, however, is to join the Obama administration. That is Huntsman's indisputable claim to distinction among the current GOP field. With fulsome praise, President Obama appointed Huntsman ambassador to China in May 2009. That was three months after Huntsman shocked Republicans in Utah -- one of the most conservative states in the Union -- by endorsing a gay-rights group's agenda that included civil unions for same-sex couples. As if to put an exclamation point on his liberalism, Huntsman is also aligned with Al Gore on the global-warming issue, a point he made clear last week. During a debate at the Reagan Library, Huntsman chided Texas Gov. Rick Perry for having made "comments that fly in the face of what 98 out of 100 climate scientists have said."
It's therefore hardly a mystery why the liberal media love Huntsman, an Obama-endorsed Republican who promotes key elements of Obama's agenda. The real mystery is why Republicans allow their presidential selection process to be manipulated in this manner by their worst enemies. Last week's Reagan Library debate was a classic example of such manipulation, as moderators Brian Williams of NBC News and John Harris of the Politico devoted much of the event to extended arguments between Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. This had the effect of demoting the other GOP candidates -- including Rep. Michele Bachmann, winner of last month's Iowa straw poll -- to bit players in the Perry-Romney Show.
When that debate ended, the campaign of Atlanta businessman Herman Cain sent out a press release noting that Cain was asked only five questions, for a total of less than six minutes of speaking time in a debate that lasted an hour and 45 minutes. Huntsman got more questions and more camera time, and if he did nothing else other than waste TV debate time, Huntsman's impact on the 2012 campaign might be as negligible as his poll numbers. But Huntsman is less significant as a candidate than he is as a symptom of how -- despite the vaunted equalizing effects of conservative talk radio and Fox News -- the liberal media continue to shape public discourse, even within the Republican Party.
So don't expect Wolf Blitzer to question the legitimacy of Huntsman's place on the debate stage tonight. But perhaps some other Republicans should.
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