James M. Lindsay

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Campaign 2012: Hello Jon Huntsman, GOP Presidential Candidate

by James M. Lindsay
June 21, 2011

Jon Huntsman is interviewed during a stop at a home in Keene, New Hampshire on May 20, 2011. (Brian Snyder/courtesy Reuters)

Jon Huntsman Jr. is interviewed during a stop at a home in Keene, New Hampshire on May 20, 2011. (Brian Snyder/courtesy Reuters)

It’s official. Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor and U.S. ambassador to China, has formally announced that he is a Republican candidate for president. As he promised, Huntsman made the announcement in a speech at Liberty State Park in New Jersey with the Statue of Liberty shining in the background. The choice of the announcement site was no accident—Ronald Reagan launched his successful 1980 campaign on the same spot. Huntsman is trying to become the first graduate of the University of Pennsylvania to become president of the United States. (William Henry Harrison attended Penn but left after less than a year.)

The Basics.

  • Full Name: Jon Meade Huntsman Jr.
  • Date of Birth: March 26, 1960
  • Place of Birth: Palo Alto, CA
  • Religion: Mormon, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
  • Marital Status: Married (Mary Katherine Cooper)
  • Children: Mary Anne, Abigail, Elizabeth, Jon III, William, Gracie Mei, Asha Bharati
  • Alma Mater: BA, University of Pennsylvania
  • Political Offices Held: Governor of Utah from 2005 to 2009

What Supporters Say. Pete Spaulding, who ran John McCain’s presidential campaigns in New Hampshire, says that if Huntsman decides to go for the nomination:

I’d be honored to support him…He’s a new candidate. He’s a conservative candidate, but yet he has some lifestyle…He’s not rigid. He’s got a real life.

John Weaver, who advised John McCain in 2000 and again (briefly) during the 2008 race, led an effort to draft Huntsman into the 2012 race. Weaver says he is supporting Huntsman because:

He’s able to advance his principles, which a lot of us share, in a way that’s quite refreshing. He’s a problem-solving conservative…He has the kind of record that will resonate, if he chooses to run, across the spectrum of our party.

Mike Campbell, the chairman of Huckabee’s 2008 South Carolina presidential campaign, is supporting Huntsman. Campbell thinks that Huntsman compares favorably to Huckabee and to his late father, former South Carolina Governor Carroll Campbell:

There are a lot of similarities … as to the kind of people they are. There’s not a lot of fluff or spin.

As Campbell points out, South Carolina is “extremely important” to the nomination process. Since 1980, the winner of the South Carolina presidential primary has always gone on to win the Republican nomination.

Two prominent Democrats have kind words for Huntsman. Former President Jimmy Carter says that his “intention is to vote for the Democratic candidate,” but that Huntsman is “very attractive to me personally.” Former Vermont Governor and former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean says that Huntsman is “the real deal.”

What Critics Say. The New Hampshire primary is crucial to Huntsman’s campaign strategy—but he doesn’t have the support of former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu, who says:

Huntsman won’t play well anywhere, because Huntsman’s only barely a Republican. Huntsman’s too liberal, comes with the tarnish of having accepted the appointment from Obama. He’s never said anything really conservative in his life. How’s he going to win in a conservative primary? He can’t. Huntsman is, in my opinion, a non-player.

Conservative blogger Erick Erickson also opposes Huntsman’s bid for the White House:

When the President of the United States sends you off to be Ambassador to our greatest strategic adversary in the world, you don’t sit around contemplating running against the very same President you serve. It begs the question of did you fully carry out your duties as Ambassador, or [did you] let a few things slip along the way hoping to damage the President?

The Manchester Union Leader wasn’t happy that Huntsman skipped last Monday night’s GOP presidential debate. New Hampshire’s most widely read newspaper drew an unflattering comparison between Huntsman and the first baseman for the best team in baseball, the Boston Red Sox. (The Union Leader’s analogy works for its readership because New Hampshire sits in the middle of Red Sox Nation.)

If Adrian Gonzalez had Huntsman’s sense of timing, he’d lead the American League in strikeouts instead of batting average, hits and RBI.

Stories You Will Hear More About. Huntsman is the oldest of nine children born to Jon Huntsman, Sr., the founder of the Huntsman Corporation, a chemical company. (You have probably encountered the senior Huntsman’s handiwork. He invented the clamshell container that holds your Big Mac.) With 2010 revenues totaling more than $9 billion, the Huntsman Corporation is the largest company in Utah—and the Huntsmans are one of the nation’s wealthiest and most generous families. There are 1,200 living billionaires in the world; Jon Huntsman Sr. holds the distinction of being one of only nineteen billionaires who has donated at least $1 billion to charity.

Huntsman is a Mormon whose ancestors have a distinguished history in the Church. His children attend Catholic schools, though, and he says:

I can’t say I am overly religious…I get satisfaction from many different types of religions and philosophies.

Huntsman and Mitt Romney are distant cousins, sharing a common ancestor who was a Mormon apostle. As the two branches of the family diverged genealogically, they remained friendly. Huntsman’s grandfather David Haight’s closest childhood friend was George Romney, Mitt’s dad. Karen Huntsman, Jon’s mother, shared a dorm room with Romney’s sister Jane at the University of Utah in the 1950s.

Family ties notwithstanding, Huntsman and Romney have a history of rivalry. Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt led the search committee to find a turnaround artist to save the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. Leavitt recalls that both Huntsman and Romney saw the chairmanship “as a terrific political opportunity.” Romney ultimately got the job. A few months later, the Salt Lake Tribune had the senior Huntsman on the record calling Romney “politically driven” and “very, very slick and fast-talking.” While the Huntsman family says that the press exaggerated the Olympics story, whatever split existed between the two families was only exacerbated during the 2008 presidential campaign. Huntsman had agreed to support Romney. But he changed his mind and decided instead to endorse John McCain. Romney learned about the switch in the newspapers.

Huntsman spent his childhood in Palo Alto, California as well as Utah. He also saw a bit of Washington, DC, when his father served as a special assistant to President Richard Nixon. Huntsman was a dedicated Boy Scout and he eventually became an Eagle Scout.

In the late 1970s, Huntsman lost an election for senior class president. He later dropped out of high school to play the keyboard in a band called “Wizard.” He eventually enrolled at the University of Utah. He took two years off of college to serve as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan—learning Mandarin along the way. When he returned to the United States, he transferred to the University of Pennsylvania. He graduated with a BA in international politics in 1987.

Huntsman met his wife, Mary Kaye, in high school after she moved to Utah from Florida. The pair started dating later on when they worked together in a pie shop—Jon as the dishwasher and Mary Kaye as the salad girl. They have adopted two of their seven children; they have a ten-year-old daughter from China and a three-year-old from India. Mary Kaye has encouraged her husband to run:

I am very comfortable. I feel very much at peace about it. At the end of the day it’s his decision, and he knows we are 100 percent behind him…I believe in him.

Huntsman got his first government experience as a staff assistant in the Reagan White House, traveling with Reagan on a trip to Beijing in 1984. He held a variety of posts in George H.W. Bush’s administration. The elder Bush eventually made him U.S. ambassador to Singapore. Huntsman was thirty-two at the time, making him the youngest ambassador in more than a century. He also served as deputy U.S. trade representative in the elder Bush’s administration.

Huntsman was elected governor of Utah in 2004 and reelected in 2008. During his time as governor, Utah topped the Pew Center’s government management rankings with a grade of A-, an honor it shared with Virginia and Washington. In 2009 Forbes named Utah one of the best states for business.

Huntsman was a popular governor. In January 2009, he received a 90 percent approval rating—only the second time a Utah governor had received such widespread public support.

President Obama appointed Huntsman U.S. ambassador to China. During his tenure in Beijing, Huntsman criticized Chinese human rights violations. John Kamm, founder of the Dui Hua Foundation, a Chinese human rights organization, says he was “struck by how much time [Huntsman] has spent on human rights during his tenure as ambassador.”

Huntsman also fought for intellectual property rights. Myron Brilliant, a senior vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, says that he was:

Very engaged and committed to working with U.S. companies to address commercial issues we have abroad.

The Huntsman Corporation has business interests around the globe. These business interests could be a problem for Huntsman on the campaign trail. When Huntsman worked for the company it bought a firm in Iran. The Huntsman Corporation eventually closed down its Iranian operations to avoid “reputational risk.” Huntsman divested himself completely of any financial interest in the company in 2005, but that detail may get lost in the fervor of the campaign trail.

Huntsman in His Own Words. Huntsman says he views public service as his calling:

My deepest passion is public service and serving my country—besides my family that’s my deepest passion. My family all wore the uniform and that was important, and that’s what my relatives used to talk about in Fillmore, Utah…I wanted to pursue public service more than anything on the public policy side; until only a year before we ran, it really hadn’t occurred to me that [running for office] was a sane thing to do. You make fun of people who run, but if you’re not willing to run, what kind of patriot are you.

Huntsman says that his commitment to serve explains his willingness to run for president:

Why am I thinking about running for president? I think it’s fundamentally unacceptable that we’re about to pass down our country to the next generation in worse condition that we received it. That is unacceptable.

Huntsman is trying to brand himself as a different type of politician—one that knows how to listen. He quips:

The most under-utilized part of the human anatomy for most politicians is the ear.

The Campaign Book. None yet.

Foreign Policy Views. Huntsman traces his interest in foreign policy and Asia in particular back to 1971, when he was an eleven-year-old visiting his father at the White House. He met Henry Kissinger, who was headed out of Washington on a trip. Huntsman helped Kissinger with his bags and asked the national security adviser where he was going. Kissinger answered:

Please don’t tell anyone. I’m going to China.

Huntsman used his last speech as ambassador to China to deliver some of the most direct criticisms of China’s human rights record seen by a U.S. official. Citing the detentions of 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and Beijing artist Ali Weiwei, Huntsman said:

The United States will never stop supporting human rights because we believe in the fundamental struggle for human dignity and justice wherever it may occur.

Huntsman wants to rethink American foreign policy more broadly to realign U.S. spending and deployments abroad:

In terms of foreign policy, we have a generational opportunity…to reset our position in the world. And it must be done based upon our deployments in all corners of the world, wherever we find ourselves, how affordable those deployments are, whether it’s a good use of our young men and women. Whether it’s in our core national security and interest. We’re fighting an enemy that is far different than any we have got before. It’s a nontraditional kind of war, and I think we need to step back, recalibrate how we go about protecting our borders and protecting our people, and resetting our position in the world.”

Huntsman says that a drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan is “inevitable,” even if it brings civil war and chaos to the country. He argues:

I would tell you that we have to evaluate very carefully our presence in Afghanistan. And my inclination would be to say that it is a heavy and very expensive presence we have on the ground. That at a point in time where we need to be looking at our asymmetrical threats, what we have in Afghanistan today is not consistent with how we ought to be responding.

Just last week, Huntsman began outlining his view on how the United States might accomplish a drawdown in Afghanistan:

Click here to view this video on YouTube.

Huntsman is paying attention to the public’s mood on Afghanistan. Last week he pointed out:

My hunch is that the American people want to be out of there as quickly as we can get out.

Huntsman opposes U.S. involvement in Libya. He says he would have chosen a different path than the one his former boss chose:

I would have chosen from the beginning not to intervene in Libya. I would say that is not core to our national security interest…we probably don’t need to be in certain parts of the Middle East where there are domestic revolutions playing out. Where we probably just ought to let them play out.

Target Audience. Huntsman lacks an obvious base constituency. None of the three major GOP camps—social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, or national security conservatives—would put him at the top of their preferred list of candidates. He knows that. His calculation, however, is that what matters is the polling data that shows that most Republicans would compromise on a candidate if that meant nominating the person with the best chance of beating President Obama in November 2012. Huntsman will be working to position himself as that candidate.

Major Strengths. Huntsman is wealthy and photogenic. His campaign will portray him as relatively young, charismatic, and definitely cool. He has played in a band, rides motocross, and has seven children, two adopted from faraway places.

Huntsman also comes to the race with an impressive resume that covers both domestic and foreign policy. The latter point is significant because he will likely make substantially reducing the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan a major part of his campaign.

Many of Huntsman’s critics in the GOP think he has the potential to be a formidable general election candidate. So do many Democrats. In May 2009, Obama’s campaign manager David Plouffe praised Huntsman and said “I think he’s really out there speaking a lot of truth about the direction of the party.” So look for Huntsman to take his presumed weakness with the GOP and try to turn it into a strength.

Major Weaknesses. Utah Tea Party activist Darcy Van Orden sums up Huntsman’s problem in the race for the GOP presidential nomination succinctly:

I think he should run as a Democrat.

Huntsman’s GOP critics are quick to list the ways he falls short in their eyes. He lauded Obama’s economic stimulus program, supported civil unions for gay couples, and supported the cap-and-trade system for curbing carbon dioxide emissions. Huntsman says he has changed his mind on cap-and-trade because “our economy’s in a different place” now, but he still thinks that human-induced climate change is real. As he told Time recently:

This is an issue that ought to be answered by the scientific community; I’m not a meteorologist. All I know is 90 percent of the scientists say climate change is occurring. If 90 percent of the oncological community said something was causing cancer we’d listen to them. I respect science and the professionals behind the science so I tend to think it’s better left to the science community—though we can debate what that means for the energy and transportation sectors.

Many Republicans see the fact that Huntsman served as President Obama’s ambassador to China as proof that he is not one of them. Huntsman’s praise for President Obama has come back to haunt him. In August 2009, he wrote to the president:

You are a remarkable leader, and it has been a great honor getting to know you.

Conservatives also aren’t happy with a letter that Huntsman wrote to former President Bill Clinton. That letter praises both the former president and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Huntsman refuses to apologize for either letter or for his service in the Obama administration:

We’ve been asked occasionally, “Well, you served President Obama.” I did serve President Obama. I served my president, my president asked me to serve, in a time of war, in a time of economic difficult in this country. I’m the kind of person, when asked by my president to stand up and serve my country, when asked, I do it.

Huntsman’s wealth and privileged life might also present problems. Huntsman’s personal wealth appears modest alongside Mitt Romney’s $150 to $250 million net worth, but comparisons aside, Huntsman is not your average Joe. When Huntsman left China and moved back to the United States, he bought a $3.6 million townhouse in Washington’s tony Kalorama neighborhood. Huntsman supporters try to downplay his wealth; Huntsman’s first chief of staff, now Congressman Jason Chaffetz says:

I don’t know that he’s necessarily, personally uber-rich but that depends on your perspective.

Huntsman portrays himself as an average guy who does not have fancy tastes despite his wealth. The Salt Lake Tribune writes:

The former governor’s idea of a lunch meeting could either be a couple tacos from a street stand or a make-your-own-peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich feast in his office.

Huntsman in Depth. The New Republic profiled governor Huntsman back in 2009 and made the case that Huntsman was unlikely to win a GOP nominating contest. Chris Cillizza’s “The Fix” has the case for Huntsman as well as the case against. Politico’s Kasie Hunt looks at Huntsman’s foreign policy views. The New York Times’s Matt Bai reports that some GOP insiders think that Huntsman has a one-in-five chance to win the Republican presidential nomination. Matt also profiles Huntsman in the issue of the New York Times Sunday Magazine that hits the newsstands later this week. Glen Thrush and Kaysie Hunt explore how his family’s business interests could cause problems for Huntsman on the campaign trail.

Odds for Winning the Nomination. The latest USA Today/Gallup poll found that Huntsman had only 1 percent support among Republicans. Paddy Power says that his betting odds are at 6/1.

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