Huntsman--Dark Horse or White Knight for GOP?
Policy + Politics

Huntsman--Dark Horse or White Knight for GOP?


Does a former Utah governor who worked for the Obama administration, fretted about global warming and is barely known outside his home state stand a chance of winning the GOP presidential nomination? Political experts say it would be a long shot at best, but Jon Huntsman Jr. will give it a try beginning with his formal announcement next week.

Huntsman – a fiscal conservative but social moderate -- is the new wild card in a crowded Republican field. His entry is certain to complicate the campaign of frontrunner Mitt Romney, who like Huntsman is a wealthy Mormon and a former governor with strong appeal within the Republican establishment.

But Huntsman barely registers in the polls, and he carries considerable political baggage from his years as governor and as President Obama’s ambassador to China.   As of now,  he is not likely to have any immediate impact on a campaign currently dominated by Mitt Romney, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty. Instead, some experts say, Huntsman is likely to operate more as a stealth candidate, quietly building support, raising money and biding his time in the hopes that the front-runners stumble or his party concludes he would be the most electable challenger to Obama in the general election.

“If Romney doesn’t make it through New Hampshire or South Carolina, let’s say, then Jon Huntsman is stand-by equipment for the people in the Republican Party who want somebody who is viable in 2012,” said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist. “He’s the fire extinguisher on the wall.”  

David Winston, a GOP strategist, said that Huntsman will have trouble carving out a niche for himself in a Republican field brimming with conservative lawmakers and former governors, while explaining his role as U.S. ambassador to China under Obama. “He’s got some explaining to do there – and that’s going to be the initial challenge in his campaign,” Winston said.

Since resigning as the Obama administration’s ambassador to China in January, the wealthy former businessman and Utah chief executive has been assembling an experienced team of political advisers – including John Weaver, a one-time adviser to John McCain’s ill-fated 2008 Republican presidential campaign -- and aggressively sounding out voters in New Hampshire.

In critiquing Obama’s handling of the economy, Huntsman told CNN’s “State of the Union” program June 12 that: “On the economic side, there are no signs of success, very little. You look at unemployment, you look at the environment in which jobs supposedly can be created, when you look at the debt level, you look at all the economic indicators, and it would suggest that we're in bad shape.”

Huntsman disclosed this week that he will declare his candidacy, with his wife Mary Kaye and their seven children by his side, in Liberty Park, N.J., next Tuesday. Then he will hit the road for a weeklong tour through New Hampshire, South Carolina, Utah, Florida and Nevada -- all important states in the presidential nominating process. However, he will skip a visit to Iowa, which represents hostile territory for Huntsman’s more moderate brand of politics. 

Huntsman skipped the first major Republican presidential debate of the season in New Hampshire on Monday night broadcast by CNN – passing up an opportunity to introduce himself to a wider national audience. The following day he joined former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for an hour-long discussion about China's place in the world in an event sponsored by Reuters. Huntsman said the best way to improve relations with the Asian superpower was by "getting our own house in order." He suggested that the leverage America has at the negotiating table with China was severely curtailed by our economic weaknesses.

“In some ways, Huntsman’s campaign resembles John McCain’s approach—with some top McCain consultants thrown in for good measure,” said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist. “Yet most Republicans will say, publicly or privately, that they don’t want a repeat of McCain’s candidacy in any fashion.”

On fiscal policy, Huntsman’s record as governor is strong, and could potentially be attractive to GOP voters. In a speech June 3 at the Faith and Freedom Conference in Washington, Huntsman said, “As Utah's governor, I cut taxes across the board, which amounted to the largest tax cut in my state's history.”

Under his watch, Utah maintained a top AAA bond rating when the economy’s bottom fell out, largely by restructuring the state’s tax system to be more competitive in recruiting businesses, increasing tourism, and stimulating job growth and capital investment. Huntsman’s 2007 tax relief bill reduced sales tax on food, and revamped the tax structure to create a flatter tax. The $400 million tax cut was the largest in Utah’s history, and in 2010, Forbes named Utah the top state for business and careers.

Another major Huntsman legislative achievement was a health care overhaul. Enacted in 2009, the Utah Health Exchange comes without any mandates – unlike Romney’s health care initiative in Massachusetts--and allows small businesses for the first time to define their contribution to workers’ health benefits.  Huntsman said that, if elected president, he would seek to repeal Obama’s Affordable Care Act, and would look to the states for ideas to replace it. 

On Medicare, Huntsman said he “admires” Republican House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s “honest attempt” to reform the system, but did not publicly endorse the plan. Huntsman argues for raising the national debt ceiling, but, like many of his Republican brethren, he would only vote for it if the measure were accompanied by corresponding spending cuts. He has said he is not opposed to stimulus spending in theory, but thought the Obama economic recovery package was poorly designed.

“We must also make sweeping reforms of our tax code, regulatory policies, and other government policies to improve our productivity, competitiveness, and job creation,” Huntsman wrote last month in the Wall Street Journal.

Huntsman, 51, is a native of Palo Alto, Calif., and a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in international politics.  His father is billionaire businessman and philanthropist who founded the Huntsman Corporation, a global chemical manufacturing company. The younger Huntsman served as a Mormon Church missionary for two years in Taiwan before eventually entering government. He worked in the administrations of Republicans Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, primarily on commerce and trade issues.
Huntsman was elected Governor of Utah in 2005 and won re-election in 2008 with nearly 78 percent of the vote.  On August 11, 2009, he resigned as governor to accept appointment in Obama’s Democratic administration as ambassador to China.

While Huntsman has solid bonifides among Republicans as a tax cutter, he is on shakier ground as a budget cutter. And his stand on social policy and controversial environmental issues put him at odds with many conservatives in his party. Although he doesn’t endorse gay marriage, ss governor of Utah, he backed a bill that would have allowed civil unions for same-sex couples. In 2007, responding to growing concern about the problem of global warming , Huntsman signed the  Western Climate Initiative,  by which Utah joined with other governments in agreeing to pursue targets for reduced production of  greenhouse gases . He appeared in an advertisement sponsored by Environmental Defense, a national environmental group, in which he said:  “Now it's time for Congress to act by capping greenhouse-gas pollution."

This year, however, Huntsman, shifted his position by coming out against the idea of capping carbon emissions   and allowing industries to purchase licenses to pollute from other non-polluting companies. The so-called “cap-and-trade” proposal has drawn sharp fire from Republicans and industry leaders who contend it would seriously harm the economy. “Much of this discussion happened before the bottom fell out of the economy, and until it comes back, this isn’t the moment,” Huntsman said.

Stuart  Rothenberg, a political analyst and columnist, said that while Huntsman “looks and can sound like a president,” he will have a difficult time explaining away his positions on civil marriage, his early support of capping industrial carbon emissions and his service as Obama’s ambassador to China between May 2009 and last April.“People who attend caucuses or take part in primaries often have visceral responses that are not always changed by hard facts, and so he’ll have to deal with that,” Rothenberg said.

Other experts are more sanguine. “I think he’s going to be a fresh face, an outsider,” said GOP strategist Linda Di Vall.  “He’s going to have his work cut out for him entering this late, but there still seems to be a lot of fluidity in the race.”

“Having a strong business background, understanding how to create private sector jobs, and his experience working in China seeing firsthand how their economy has grown---those are huge assets that I’m not sure other in the field can claim,” said Sergio Rodriguera, a former Treasury policy adviser and Huntsman supporter.

In fact, Huntsman was not a remarkable presence in Beijing after he was appointed ambassador, according to reports. He made minor splashes by way of nonconformist gestures—riding a Chinese bicycle to official meetings, for instance—but on the big issues he did not make much of a dent. The big issues during his tenure were the Chinese internet policies and, longer-range, the search for a framework within which to structure a bilateral partnership. Huntsman made little progress on either front. Sabato, the political scientist, said that Huntsman gives an impressive public appearance, is a good speaker, and has a message that will resonate with moderates.

“He’s obviously hoping to be the remainder candidate in a weak field, emerging once some of the key players are spent forces so that his weaknesses won’t be fully aired,” Sabato said. “Huntsman wants Romney to be wounded in Iowa, and Pawlenty too, both at the hands of Michele Bachmann, so that he can score a big upset in New Hampshire, capture South Carolina in a split field of conservatives, and then cap off the nomination, in effect, by grabbing Florida, where he’s set up his campaign shop. Anything is possible in politics; odd strategies sometimes succeed.”

Patrick Smith of The Fiscal Times contributed to this article.

Visit our special topic page for complete coverage of Election 2012

Related Links:
Huntsman Adviser Promises ‘Most Aggressive’ New Hampshire Campaign (The Huffington Post)
Huntsman Will Be Only Moderate in GOP Race (Washington Examiner)
Jon Huntsman: Former Governor of Utah (New York Times)