The former governor is the scion of the wealthy businessman that he’s named after and emanates from a much-respected and beloved Utah Mormon family. Like many observant Mormons, Huntsman in his early 20s went on a mission to promote the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Huntsman’s mission was to Taiwan, and he is fluent in Mandarin, the dominant Chinese dialect.
The Utah Republican could access his family’s vast fortune to seed any presidential campaign, and he was thought of as potentially formidable before he accepted the ambassadorship in early 2009. That’s one reason Obama elevated him to the position to begin with, and the president and his team have pointedly lauded Huntsman’s service since his resignation plans became public. Obama has quipped that Huntsman has been a close partner, a trait he’s sure would be no problem in a GOP primary.
In 2008, Huntsman backed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for president over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a fellow Mormon who is expected to run again in 2012. Huntsman’s supporters refute charges that he is insufficiently conservative, describing him as a statesman who could provide conservative leadership while still reaching across the aisle to forge consensus.
“As governor, he signed into law market-based health care reform and across-the-board tax cuts, which allowed Utah to weather the economic storm and remain the best state in the U.S. for businesses to create jobs,” said Republican lobbyist Allen Shofe, who would handle Member relations for Huntsman if he runs. “This record makes Gov. Huntsman the type of proven, authentic conservative who would have the ability to appeal to a broad swath of a presidential primary electorate.”
Despite the tension between Huntsman and Utah conservatives, the ambassador is not without supporters among such voters in his home state.
Republican activist Larry Jensen described himself as very staunch conservative who “loves” Huntsman. Jensen said Huntsman’s support for same-sex civil unions in 2009 caused many conservatives to turn on the governor and decide he had become more liberal than when first elected. Advancing to the statewide Republican primary ballot in Utah requires first winning a vote of state GOP convention delegates, who are often more conservative than rank-and-file primary voters. Huntsman did so — twice.
“I view him as a very special man who would make a great president,” Jensen said.
Huntsman’s pragmatic streak could be attractive to some GOP primary voters, possibly in New Hampshire, where independents can vote in the primary. But his centrism could be problematic in Iowa, Nevada, South Carolina and other early primary and caucus states. Jensen conceded that his view of Huntsman is not widely held in conservative quarters. And others said disillusionment with Huntsman in deeply religious Utah is about far more than gay rights.
Sen. Mike Lee, a tea party favorite who defeated then-Sen. Bob Bennett at the 2010 Utah GOP convention, signaled he would not endorse Huntsman if the ambassador runs for president. Lee said he did not necessarily plan to back anyone in the primary, but his comments were telling because he previously served in Huntsman’s administration as general counsel and described his old boss as a friend.