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“I think he should run as a Democrat.”
Though not unanimous, this view of Jon Huntsman offered by Utah tea party activist Darcy Van Orden runs deep in Beehive State conservative circles and could represent Huntsman’s single biggest barrier to winning the Republican presidential nomination.
Interviews with more than a half-dozen Utah conservatives, including one Republican consultant, two GOP state legislators and three tea party activists, reveal Huntsman as an intelligent, gifted politician with extraordinary charisma who fell out of favor with his party’s base for a perception that he drifted to the left on key fiscal and social issues.
That dissatisfaction surfaced long before President Barack Obama tapped him as ambassador to China.
“I wouldn’t call him moderate or conservative. I’d call him liberal,” said small-business owner David Kirkham, among the best-known Utah tea party organizers.
LaVarr Webb, a political consultant who worked for former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt (R) for seven years as a policy deputy, described Huntsman, a former two-term governor, as among the most popular governors ever. Webb said that Huntsman especially appealed to mainstream Democratic, Republican and independent voters and that conservatives liked him personally. But as Huntsman’s Salt Lake City administration unfolded, “he took more moderate positions than the far right would have liked” on gay rights and climate change, Webb said.
But many Utah conservative activists were equally disenchanted with Huntsman’s record on state spending. They viewed the governor’s position on climate change and federal lands as supporting a powerful federal government, an image that might not be helpful in a Republican presidential primary.
Early in Huntsman’s gubernatorial tenure, he successfully shepherded a private school vouchers bill through the state Legislature. But conservatives were later disappointed because they believed he did not fight to defend the legislation in a voter referendum that repealed it. There was another uproar when Huntsman pared down the state’s workweek from five days to four to save energy — and when he entered Utah into the Western Climate Initiative with five other states concerned about global warming.
“As far as the national, presidential election goes, a lot of us [in Utah] are really kind of scratching our heads on why he’s trying to do this given the difficulty of the nominating process for a more moderate Republican,” Webb said. “I don’t see how he has much of a chance in the current political climate. I think it will be very difficult for him.”
Huntsman, who turns 51 later this month, has yet to announce a presidential bid and is precluded by law from doing anything in this regard before his scheduled April 30 resignation as ambassador becomes official. But a White House run had been in the planning before Huntsman went to China, and a team of well-known Republican political operatives is in place and ready to go to work for him if he pulls the trigger.
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.
Lee declined to comment on Huntsman’s viability in a Republican presidential primary, saying only: “I used to work for him, and I like him. ... I wish him well.”
Sen. Orrin Hatch, Utah’s senior Senator, is backing Romney, as he did in 2008.
State Rep. Carl Wimmer and state Sen. Howard Stephenson, two Utah Republicans who have dealt with Huntsman over the years, each described the ambassador as honest, respectful, likeable, politically astute — and moderate. Neither expects Huntsman to fare well in the 2012 GOP presidential primary, should he run.
“Among my conservative colleagues and people involved in conservative circles here in Utah, he’s not considered a conservative,” said Stephenson, who also serves as president of the Utah Taxpayers Association.