Will Mormon-on-Mormon, Hunstman v. Romney Primary Save the GOP from the Religious Right?

The first GOP primary debate? Utterly forgettable. Big fundraisers and donors? Still sitting on the sidelines. Frontrunner Mitt Romney? Avoiding evangelicals in Iowa and South Carolina, a state he hasn’t visited in almost 200 days.

Aside from the ridiculous birther antics of Donald Trump, it’s been all hesitation and trepidation in the Big Mo-Publican Primary 2012.

Until last weekend.

That’s when Jon Huntsman, Jr., took his first serious public steps towards declaring candidacy, in South Carolina (as we predicted he would back in February here at RD).

After spending the week filing paperwork to create a federal political action committee, Huntsman spoke last Saturday at the University of South Carolina’s commencement. On Sunday, he attended services not at his local LDS chapel but at the non-denominational Seacoast megachurch in suburban Charleston. (Seacoast’s rock-and-roll website, with leather jacket-clad pastors and guitar-wielding acolytes, seems right up Huntsman’s sartorial alley.)  

From the buzz his nascent campaign is gathering, it seems that those who cover politics couldn’t be more relieved by the fascinating prospect of a Huntsman run. 

What’s not clear is how he will connect with the Republican base, especially the evangelical Christian and Tea Party factions which have been driving the GOP agenda as well as its electoral strategy.

A known moderate and a former Obama appointee, Huntsman has staked a few conservative positions, such as opposition to abortion. He also has a major fan in Tea Party media titan Glenn Beck. We’ve not seen enough of Huntsman in action to know if he himself is capable of throwing out Beck-style red meat for the conservative crowds, but something about him—maybe his reverence for a progressive rock band called “Dream Theater”—tells us he’s probably not.

And then there’s his Mormon faith, a factor that’s historically been a negative for Republican presidential candidates like Romney.

Will that change when there are two Mormons in the race? Could it be that Huntsman, an unorthodox, globe-trotting Mormon with a Hindu daughter and a motorcycle-riding past, will be able to draw enough of a contrast with the far more rigid and orthodox Romney? Could it be that Huntsman will know how to wear his religion more lightly? Could it be that Mitt took most of the heat for Mormonism in 2008? And could it be that the real trouble with Mitt has been not his Mormonism but his longstanding charisma problem, which has made his Mormonism one of the most intriguing aspects of his candidacy?

Even in South Carolina, political observers like Ben Smith are questioning if there are really enough social conservatives motivated by anti-Mormon animus to make the primary unwinnable for a Mormon.

A 2012 Huntsman vs. Romney contest with dueling Mormon frontrunners would challenge the conventional wisdom that the GOP’s success depends upon its ability to mobilize conservative Christians.

It’s a prospect that may make for a truly epic Mo-Publican Primary 2012.