WASHINGTON -- It's Grover time in the GOP, which has nothing to do with "Sesame Street" and everything to do with Jon Huntsman's effort to distinguish himself from the other two BWFGs (bland, white former governors) in the Republican presidential race.
This is the season in which the bearded, Harvard-trained ayatollah of the anti-tax movement, Grover Norquist, demands (almost always successfully) that candidates sign a document pledging to oppose any tax increase of any kind. The founder and leader of the Washington-based Americans for Tax Reform, Norquist is clever, meticulous and persistent -- and the leading enforcer and symbol of Republican tax-cutting orthodoxy.
Most Republican presidential contenders have signed since Norquist started demanding that they do so back in 1988. But there are signs that his grip on the Party may be weakening a bit, which presents an opening for Huntsman and a dilemma for Tim Pawlenty.
According to Norquist, five GOP presidential contenders for the 2012 nomination have signed a pledge that, if elected president, they will "oppose and veto" any "net" federal tax increase. The signees so far are not exactly a roster of front-row names: Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Gary Johnson and Ron Paul. Michele Bachmann hasn't signed, but is expected to do so.
"It's still early in the season," Norquist told The Huffington Post.
Mitt Romney signed the pledge when he ran and lost in 2008. He has yet to sign again, and on Tuesday his campaign announced that he would skip a debate Norquist's group was co-sponsoring in July with conservative news organization the Daily Caller.
Still, Norquist told HuffPost that Romney promised him the same day that he would take the pledge again despite kissing off the debate. "Romney told me personally that he would sign," Norquist said.
The Romney campaign confirmed that the former Massachusetts governor would indeed sign, "just like he did in 2008," spokesperson Andrea Saul said.
Tim Pawlenty signed a Norquist-style pledge when he was governor of Minnesota, but has not signed the official one yet this year. "I expect that he will," Norquist said, adding "I expect that they ALL will."
Maybe not. "We haven't said either way," said Pawlenty spokesman Alex Conant.
And Huntsman told reporters Tuesday that he would not sign Norquist's or any other pledge this year -- on abortion, gay rights or any other topic.
"First of all, I don't sign pledges," he told reporters after announcing his candidacy near the Statue of Liberty. "I was asked to sign a pledge when I ran for governor in 2004, and I didn't. And I got attacked because I didn't. And then we went around and ended up cutting and reforming taxes at record levels [and] I never heard anything in the aftermath of our work. My take on all of this is, your record should say everything about where you are and where you're going. I don't need to sign a pledge."
Norquist, a quiet but effective enforcer, said that that was not the last word. He praised Huntsman for his tax-cutting record as second to none among governors in the race. "Governor Huntsman hasn't seen the wording of the pledge yet. It is very simple and straightforward. Once he sees that there aren't complications and traps in it, I have every confidence that he will sign it."
Spoken like a enforcer with a long track record.
But Huntsman's top adviser, John Weaver, begged to differ. "Not gonna happen," he told HuffPost. "We're not signing anything."