But can Utah’s impressive ex-governor catch up with the front-runner for the Republican nomination, his fellow-Mormon Mitt Romney?
May 26th 2011 | DURHAM, NEW HAMPSHIRE | from the print edition
“I’M A margin-of-error guy,” Jon Huntsman cheerfully admits to an audience of a few dozen at a grand lakeside home in New Hampshire. Support for his putative presidential bid, he explains, registers in the low single digits in most polls—a level so low as to be meaningless. He and his family are “grateful that anyone would want to show up and shake our hands”.
Yet most pundits count Mr Huntsman as one of the leading contenders for the Republican nomination, alongside his fellow former governors Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty. In part, that is because the field is steadily narrowing: Mitch Daniels, another governor with a strong following among fiscal conservatives, bowed out of the race this week. Apart from Mr Huntsman himself, who says he will decide definitively whether to run next month, there are now only two possible entrants of any stature still on the sidelines: Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann. There is talk that Mrs Bachmann, in particular, is about to join the fray, but both she and Mrs Palin are right-wing firebrands with a limited, albeit devoted, following.
The hype about Mr Huntsman also stems from his impressive résumé, including a term-and-a-bit as governor of Utah, a stint as ambassador to China (he speaks fluent Mandarin), various high-powered jobs in Washington and several spells in the family business. For all his self-deprecation, he appears on the verge of launching a determined campaign, having recruited staff, sounded out fund-raisers and tested the waters with a five-day tour of New Hampshire, which will hold the first Republican primary early next year.
On his swing through the state, after the usual tropes about being a father first and foremost, saluting the service of veterans and relishing the give-and-take with the locals, Mr Huntsman spoke chiefly about his desire to revive the economy through a new “industrial revolution”. America could bring one about, he argues, by reducing its debt, lowering and simplifying taxes, cutting regulation and increasing the exploitation of domestic sources of energy. The alternative, he says, is a decade of stagnation and decline.
But unlike Mr Pawlenty, who officially launched his campaign this week, Mr Huntsman does not cite litanies of grim statistics, let alone blame Barack Obama for them. Indeed, Mr Huntsman usually mentions Mr Obama only to explain that when the president offered him the job of ambassador to China, he accepted out of a sense of duty. Politicians from both parties only want what is best for America, he says, and the country would be a better place if everyone acknowledged as much and kept political debate more civil.
Right-wing Republicans see all this as evidence of wishy-washiness. They complain that Mr Huntsman not only worked for Mr Obama, but also called him “a remarkable leader” in a gushing letter thanking him for the job. As governor, he defended lots of causes considered heretical by many conservatives, including Mr Obama’s economic stimulus, civil unions for gay couples and a cap-and-trade scheme to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. He has also advocated allowing illegal immigrants brought to America as children to attend state universities on the same basis as native-born locals.
Yet in most respects Mr Huntsman has an unimpeachably conservative record. He presided over the biggest tax cut in Utah’s history. He instituted health-care 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.
Whether Mr Huntsman can appeal to red-blooded Republicans in the primaries will depend in part on the quality of his campaign. Many of the staff he has lined up are veterans of the presidential bids of John McCain, who won the Republican nomination in 2008 despite his reputation as a relative liberal. Mr Huntsman seems quite relaxed on the hustings, taking up an impromptu pool game at a veterans’ club, for example (he lost), and teasing the locals about their accents. Unlike Mr Romney, he seems comfortable in a denim jacket, plaid shirt and corduroy trousers; his wife and two of his daughters accompanied him across New Hampshire in fashionable skinny jeans. His staff is happy to advertise that he dropped out of high school to play in a rock band, and is an avid motorcyclist.
But Mr Huntsman is not exactly the salt of the earth. His father made billions selling packaging to firms like McDonald’s, and worked in the Nixon administration. His stump speech can seem quite esoteric at times, with references to the inaugural speech of William Harrison, America’s ninth president, and to Japan’s “lost decade” of economic stagnation. He keeps banging on about the effects of the public debt on the exchange rate—natural enough for a former ambassador and trade negotiator, perhaps, but hardly the main concern in the eyes of most deficit hawks.
Moreover, Mr Huntsman, like Mr Romney, is a Mormon, a faith viewed with some suspicion by the evangelical Christians who make up a sizeable share of the Republican primary electorate. In fact, Mr Romney and Mr Huntsman are (distant) cousins, and have much in common. They are both sons of billionaire businessmen-turned-politicians; both have presidential looks and picture-perfect families; both are considered ideologically unreliable by many on the right.
Mr Huntsman, however, does not seem racked by doubts. Although he insists he is still “kicking the tyres” and needs to discuss it with his family, Mrs Huntsman says she does not foresee objections of the sort that caused Mr Daniels to pass. He has governed a state, he knows about foreign policy and he oozes confidence; it would be a pity if Mr Huntsman did not run.