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Huntsman’s inauspicious quest for GOP nomination

Huntsman’s inauspicious quest for GOP nomination

If Republicans set out to design the perfect candidate to counter Barack Obama’s claims for re-election, it might look like former Utah governor, Obama's ambassador to China, one-time rocker and current wealthy man, Jon Huntsman. But he will have to up his game significantly. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

Huntsman’s tousled good looks make him seem like a body double for any actor who is the president in one of those Washington thrillers. And he comes from a fabulously rich family. His father came up with that Styrofoam clamshell wrapped around a McDonald’s Big Mac or Double Cheeseburger when it is sold in the US. Or as the sign on the golden arches say, “Billions and billions sold”. That also means millions and millions of dollars, of course.

As a teenager he quit school and joined up with a rock band for a while. When he did two years’ of religious mission work, proselytising in Taiwan, he picked up a real fluency in Mandarin. The man has a settled, normal family life. He rides a hog and waxes lyrical about the experience. In a starkly partisan age, after stints in the family business and some Washington jobs in Republican administrations, Jon Huntsman accepted the call from newly elected Democratic president Barack Obama to be his ambassador in Beijing, China.

And he even has what is an increasingly rare commodity in public life – a sense of civility. When Huntsman made his Tuesday announcement to run for the Republican nomination, he described Democratic President Barack Obama as, “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.” Huntsman added, “It concerns me that civility, humanity and respect are sometimes lost in our interactions as Americans” and he also said, “I don’t think you need to run down somebody’s reputation in order to run for the office of president.”

The newest candidate also offered a few hints of campaign positions that would make “broad changes to the tax code”, tackle spending on entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, and a shift in foreign policy — at least for the present — away from overseas conflicts. Huntsman asserted it was not his desire “to disengage from the world”, but rather his belief that “the best long-term national security strategy is rebuilding our core here at home.”

Huntsman went on to say his goal is to provide national “leadership that knows we need more than hope” and “leadership that doesn’t promise Washington has all the solutions to our problems.”

Almost sounds Reaganesque, doesn’t it? And, in fact, Huntsman got his start as an advance man for Ronald Reagan.

The Economist, no flaming left wing, radical journal, praised Huntsman recently, “…in most respects Mr Huntsman has an unimpeachably conservative record. He presided over the biggest tax cut in Utah’s history. He instituted healthcare reforms of a much less meddling sort than those embraced by Mr Romney when he was governor of Massachusetts. He signed various bills designed to discourage abortion and encourage gun-ownership. He was re-elected in 2008 with 78% of the vote in one of the most fiercely Republican states in the nation, and left office with lofty approval ratings.”

So, what’s not to like? Well, for starters, there is this little matter of his respectful speaking about Barack Obama. In a climate where just the mention of Obama’s name is enough to whip some Republican grassroots activists (as well as some elected politicians) into a froth of rage about “Obamacare” and the rest of a putative socialist agenda, his imaginary Kenyan childhood or secret adherence to Islam, Huntsman’s loyal and, by all accounts, effective service to the nation and president as American ambassador in Beijing during some tricky times is enough to paint him as disloyal to his party in the minds of many Republicans.

Watch Nightline from ABC News: Jon Huntsman Declares Presidential Bid

Then there is that business about religion. Like most people in Utah and, now, his fellow candidate, Mitt Romney, Huntsman is a practicing Mormon. Now it is unusual to have one Mormon vying for the Republican presidential nod – Mitt Romney’s father, George Romney, then governor of Michigan in 1968 was the last one to enter the big tent – but two Mormons may be a wake-up call for politics groupies. Attitude surveys continue to note that a quarter of all Americans see the Mormon faith as a cult not quite in the Christian mainstream.

Surveys by the Pew Research Centre and others show strong public misgivings about the church as well as any presidential candidate who also espouses Mormonism. In 2007, in light of the possibility Mitt Romney might win the 2008 Republican nod to run for president, Pew found 30% of the public to be less likely to support a presidential candidate who is Mormon while only 2% said they would be more likely to support one. And Gallup found negative views about the Mormon religion at an even higher level of distrust or worse. Asked in February 2007, 46% of the public had an unfavourable opinion.

Now, of course, attitudes towards religion can change over time, but an analysis by the Pew Research Centre’s Forum on Religion & Public Life this year found Tea Party supporters (and the Republican Party now increasingly overlaps with those who call themselves Tea Party adherents) tend towards conservative opinions about social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, as well as on economic concerns. Moreover, such individuals are more likely than all registered voters as a whole to say their religion is the most important factor in determining their opinions on these social issues. Further, Pew data has pointed to the fact than more than two-thirds of registered voters who agreed with the religious right also said they agreed with the Tea Party.

Huntsman also has some issue stances that don’t sit well with economic and social conservatives, beyond his civility and religious “handicaps”. Although his service as Utah governor included tax cuts and opposition to abortion, he has also previously supported same-sex civil unions and caps on emissions of heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide. Most recently, after his candidacy announcement, Huntsman told reporters he would not sign the no-new-taxes pledge being pushed by economic conservatives like the anti-tax group Americans for Tax Reform, arguing he had a general distaste for such pledges, which was also why he would not sign a pledge against abortion. In addition, he said he would respect state decisions if they move forward with laws legalising same-sex marriage. Definitely not the positions favoured by the social conservative rightwing.

But the early and influential Republican caucuses and primaries actually play to Huntsman’s weaknesses. His staff is already putting its hopes on and talking up the importance of a strong showing in New Hampshire, a state whose voters have sometimes taken a liking to a relative outsider who connects with voters in small town, close-contact meetings – who, in short, connects with voters at something like a visceral level. On the other hand, for Republicans at least, Iowa and South Carolina increasingly lean heavily towards social conservatives and Tea Party supporters. That would spell real trouble for someone like Huntsman (or Mitt Romney, for that matter) despite a sterling resume. Poor showings in those states would likely force a candidate to drop out of the race early on by cutting off the oxygen of politics – campaign contributions from donors who want to be on the side of a winner.

And so, despite his experience and background, including his own time as an advance man, Huntsman’s first real moment in the sun as a declared candidate got off to a rocky start. His newly assembled staff set up his formal announcement to seek the Republican nomination to be silhouetted against the vista of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbour – but standing on the Jersey City shoreline in New Jersey.

Lovely idea, except for the fact that the TV camera crews and still photographers were largely placed on risers that gave Huntsman a backdrop of a cruise boat and a quay, and not the iconic statue. And his speech was often overwhelmed by boat horns, airplane noise and other miscellaneous distractions. This same staff actually managed to misspell Huntsman’s first name – there is no ‘h’ in Jon. Along the way he made an elementary mistake in geography (like where they were actually staging this announcement) in his maiden speech as a candidate. The lesson here is that one has to get the little things right, right out of the gate, or the storyline, becomes those stumbles and not the message.

Of course, these are early days – the vast majority of the electorate is not yet tuned into this electoral horserace and a candidate like Jon Huntsman has time to recover from the early miscues – if he can craft a message that reverberates with people and somehow reaches to their better natures. If he succeeds in that and wins the nomination, it could actually become quite a campaign in which both candidates are thoughtful, civil and polite to each other. Of course he’d make quite a secretary of state, too, if someone other than Mitt Romney gains the nomination and wins the big prize. DM

For more, read:

  • Huntsman Enters Race With Promise of Civility in The New York Times;
  • Huntsman Steps Into the Republican Vacuum in The New York Times (an in-depth profile of the newest candidate);
  • Huntsman joins GOP race in The Washington Post;
  • Jon Huntsman – picture perfect in The Economist;
  • The disappearing moderates in The Economist;Washington DC in The Economist;
  • Jon Huntsman: The Potential Republican Presidential Candidate Democrats Most Fear in Time;
  • American politics: Democracy in America: Jon Huntsman – The perils of hype in The Economist;
  • 3 Facts Checked in The Washington Post;
  • Poll: Mormon Church membership negative for Huntsman, Romney in the Desert News (Get ready to read a lot more from one of Utah’s leading newspapers);
  • The Huntsman Roadshow Opens for Business in Time;
  • Op-Ed Columnist 100 Days in The New York Times by Tom Friedman on the challenges any presidential candidate must address;
  • The Official Jon Huntsman for President website;
  • Lexington It’s that time, already, a gaggle of would-be presidents start the hard slog of chipping away at the Granite State in The Economist;
  • Nobody’s Candidate in Slate;
  • Presidential Politics and Mormon Faith at the Pew Research Center;
  • The Tea Party, Religion and Social Issues, also at Pew.

Photo: Republican candidate for U.S. President, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (C), reacts to cutting the ribbon at his national campaign headquarters alongside his wife Mary Kaye (R) and their family in Orlando, Florida, June 23, 2011. REUTERS/Scott Audette.


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