Republicans need a Cameron-style correction, and the country needs a less doctrinaire and less angry GOP. Huntsman is betting that enough primary voters believe this, too.
Most striking about his announcement Tuesday was that his speech was all about hope and promise. It offered what Huntsman wants you to think he is but little about what he'd do. With not many changes, it could have been delivered by someone announcing a Democratic challenge to President Obama.
"We have the power, we have the means, we have the character to astonish the world again by making from adversity a new and better country," he declared.
His slogan might be: Platitudes with a purpose. But upbeat rhetoric comes as a relief in a party characterized by ideological rigidity.
The biggest "news" in the speech came in these sentences: "And I respect the president of the United States. He and I have a difference of opinion on how to help a country we both love. But the question each of us wants the voters to answer is who will be the better president, not who's the better American." It's borderline brave for a Republican candidate to declare the president a good American who loves his country.
Does the former Utah governor have a chance? If you judged from 2010, you'd say no. Moderates seem to have abandoned GOP primaries.
But this ignores an important fact. In many GOP presidential primaries, the rules allow independents to cast ballots. In other influential states (including South Carolina), Democrats as well as independents can cross over.
In 2008, independents were central to John McCain's New Hampshire victory over Mitt Romney. Huntsman is counting on history to repeat itself. And independents will play an even larger role in the 2012 Republican contest than they did in 2008, when so many of them were drawn into the Democratic primaries by the battle between Obama and Hillary Clinton.
There is also this: Early on, the conservative vote will be split between the right (Romney and Tim Pawlenty) and the far right (Michele Bachmann et al.). There might be room for a candidate closer to the center. But Huntsman has already endorsed Paul Ryan's budget, which may buy him some peace on the right, but it's hardly a moderate's natural move.
It's worth recalling that Cameron spent several years working out carefully calibrated policies and proposals. Huntsman has most of this work ahead of him, and he'll be doing it on the run. The British Conservatives lost three elections before they turned to a modernizer.
Huntsman is a long shot. But he's the only Republican waging something other than a standard-issue conservative campaign, and the only one directing most of his energies toward voters who don't take their cues from Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. This will earn him attention. It might even win him some votes.
E.J. Dionne is a Washington Post columnist E-mail him at email@example.com.