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Huntsman: More or Less Than Meets the Eye?

Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images

Scenarios are a dime a dozen when it comes to political candidates, so the problem is figuring out which ones have value.

When it comes to Jon Huntsman’s impending presidential run, it isn’t yet clear whether the former Utah governor is a political powerhouse about to shake up the GOP race or a Potemkin village candidate who isn’t as real as he looks.

Huntsman certainly has assets.

“He’s clearly smart, handsome, engaging and charismatic, in a way,” one veteran Republican political insider who has dealt with him told me recently.

The son of billionaire businessman and philanthropist Jon Huntsman, Jon Jr. was a staff assistant in the Reagan White House and a deputy assistant secretary of Commerce under President George H.W. Bush. He was also deputy trade representative during the administration of President George W. Bush.

Huntsman, 51, was elected governor of Utah in 2004 and re-elected four years later. In 2009, 16 years after he ended his service as ambassador to Singapore, President Barack Obama appointed him ambassador to China. He resigned from that post recently to prepare to challenge his old boss.

The idea of a Mandarin-speaking former successful governor with extensive foreign policy and economic experience in the Republican race has more than a few insiders believing that Huntsman could be a major factor for the GOP nomination. His personal wealth, to say nothing of his father’s, adds to his credibility as a contender.

The former ambassador has already put together an intriguing team of advisers and operatives, some of whom have credentials from the 2008 presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

The team includes strategist John Weaver, media consultant Fred Davis, South Carolina guru Richard Quinn, former McCain New Hampshire chairman Peter Spaulding and Susan Wiles, who was campaign manager to now-Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R). Pollster Whit Ayres has been doing work for Horizon PAC, which is widely viewed as Huntsman’s operation.

Huntsman, who benefits from being a “fresh face” on the national scene, is likely to stress what his supporters call his conservative credentials — on abortion, taxes, guns and health care — and his successes in Utah. He will likely rely on an optimistic tone, without the anger that so many Republicans exhibit when they are discussing President Barack Obama’s performance.

But Huntsman’s list of weaknesses and vulnerabilities is even longer than that of his strengths and assets.

Like former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Huntsman is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. To some evangelicals, that is enough to disqualify Huntsman from the presidency. (See my “Why Mitt Romney Can’t ‘Solve’ His Mormon Problem,” Roll Call, Dec. 17, 2007.)

Huntsman’s appointment by Obama as ambassador is also a problem, given the animosity that many GOP activists have toward the president.

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