March 3, 2011

Jon Huntsman Jr. and Mitt Romney go way back.

In the Huntsman Corp. headquarters below Red Butte Canyon, Peter Huntsman, the younger brother of Jon Huntsman Jr., President Obama’s outgoing ambassador to China and the 2012 presidential field’s prospective incoming candidate, pointed at family pictures and explained the link between the potential GOP rivals.

“My grandfather, David Haight, my mother’s father, he was an apostle and he grew up in Oakley, Idaho. And, if I have this right, his best friend growing up was George Romney,” said Peter, the 47-year-old chief executive of his family’s multibillion-dollar chemical company. “So that’s where the Romney-Huntsman line started.”

It is likely to end on much less friendly terms.

A showdown between Huntsman, 50, and Romney, 63, would likely be the most bitter of the coming election. The respective former governors of Utah and Massachusetts have vast fortunes, silver tongues and great hair. They are also distant cousins, descended from a Mormon apostle who played a key role in the faith’s founding. The two men enjoyed the early support of powerful and devout fathers and performed the church’s missionary work — Romney in France during the Vietnam War and Huntsman in Taiwan. For years, the clans remained close, until the two scions sought to lead the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, a coveted post that promised to boost political prospects. The Games went to Romney, and the family bonds froze over when Huntsman endorsed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) over Romney in the 2008 presidential contest.

“Our families have been interwoven for a long time,” Karen Huntsman, the 72-year-old mother of Peter and Jon and seven other Huntsmans, explained under a painting of pioneers in the lobby of the headquarters. The matriarch roomed with Romney’s sister Jane in the 1950s. Her brother Bruce once dated Romney’s sister Lynn. “I know Mitt. We backed Mitt and helped him. But I wouldn’t today. And I won’t get into that.”

On Thursday afternoon at Brigham Young University in the conservative town of Provo, students in the hushed halls of the Joseph Smith Center studied the Book of Mormon in front of a glass diorama. The exhibit depicted the gold plates from which Mormons believe their prophet, Joseph Smith, decoded the gospel by looking through spectacles made from sacred stones called Urim and Thummim. Other students turned textbook pages under a showcase of ancient artifacts, which Mormons believe attest to the presence of their precursors in North America before the arrival of Christopher Columbus. In the hallway, paintings hung from the walls, depicting Mormon milestones: The Hebrew Lehi family, the ancestors of the Native Americans, loaded a ship in preparation for their voyage from Jerusalem to the Americas. A painting titled “Christ in America” paid tribute to Jesus’s appearance in the New World.

Across the campus, spotted with posters advertising a “Professional Etiquette Dinner,” the school’s library presented a lecture examining Smith’s translation of the King James Bible. Lee Groberg, a 60-year-old documentary filmmaker from nearby Bountiful, held open the door and assessed 2012’s two Mormon pioneers in national politics.

“Huntsman is more liberal, politically and religiously, if you will,” said Groberg. “There is a difference. Without being judgmental, let me put it into basic terms: Who goes to church more? Who follows the line of their religious heritage more? Romney.”

Polls demonstrate that Mormons overwhelmingly prefer Romney, signalling a schism that some Huntsman supporters welcome. Advocates for the ambassador’s presidential bid, speaking carefully on background, argue that there is a meaningful distinction in how Romney and Huntsman practice their faith.

Romney’s prominent roles in the church’s lay priesthood have cost him in his electoral past. When Romney ran for Senate in 1994, incumbent Ted Kennedy (D) drummed up suspicion among Catholic voters. As a 2008 GOP contender, Romney ran into resistance from evangelical voters, particularly in Iowa, and ultimately delivered a difficult speech insisting that Mormons were indeed Christians.

Advocates for Huntsman describe him as nowhere near as devout or defined by his church affiliation. Huntsman is a cultural Mormon, they explain, much in the way people can be culturally Jewish but not keep kosher, or culturally Catholic but not attend daily Mass.

Huntsman, whom the Obama administration hoped to sideline from the presidential race, has been coy about his ambitions and declined a request for an interview through an embassy spokesman. Stateside, a team of top Republican strategists has been busily preparing for his return. Last month, John Weaver, a former McCain adviser, and Fred Davis, the famously nontraditional Republican adman, launched a Web site for Horizon PAC, which prominently features a large letter H over vague verse: “Maybe someday we’ll find a new generation of conservative leaders.”

As a member of the executive branch, Huntsman is legally barred from coordinating with an independent political action committee, and Weaver said in an e-mail that Huntsman had “nothing whatsoever” to do with Horizon. “Not directly. Not indirectly,” he said. Weaver said his last contact with Huntsman came in the form of a Christmas card.

Peter Huntsman said he had never seen the Horizon Web site or met Weaver. “I knew he had formed a PAC,” Peter said, but added that his brother was still in the “soul-searching” phase. “When he comes back, he’ll take some time and make his decision.” (In a subsequent conversation, Peter emphasized that he has never spoken to his brother about the PAC and only knew of its existence through media reports.)

In Utah, some Republican officials say Huntsman’s words, distancing himself from the church, are all the evidence they need about his national ambitions. In a recent interview with Fortune Magazine, Huntsman said, “I can’t say I am overly religious,” and noted that his children attend Catholic schools and that one of his adopted daughters was born Buddhist and another Hindu. “I get satisfaction from many different types of religions and philosophies.”

Huntsman’s relatives and friends describe him frequently as an independent thinker, unbeholden to any church or party doctrine. Actually, it’s become its own orthodoxy to describe him as un­or­tho­dox.

Peter Huntsman talked about how his brother played keyboard in a high school band named “Wizard.” The group had an Aerosmith sound, he said, but “Johnny was more down the line of Emerson, Lake and Palmer” and “Captain Beefheart.” He portrayed a typical older brother who pinned him down on Saturday mornings to “breathe morning breath on me” but who also stunned the family by suggesting that his little brother be the company’s chief executive. The two rode motocross and shot guns off the back porch. (Peter, now a vegan, shot animals. Jon limited himself to bottles.) There was a reminder that in Beijing, Huntsman preferred bicycles to limos and noodle shops to galas. As his mother, Karen, praised her son’s powers of persuasion and innate ability to bring people together, Peter told how his brother escaped scolding after piling a muddy motorcycle into the family van.

“Somehow he could talk his way out of the fact — that it wasn’t a big deal,” said Peter. “I would do it, and I didn’t have the diplomacy my brother did.”

When it comes to Huntsman’s current positioning, not everyone appreciates his artful dodging. “Some people think that he’s distancing himself because of what Mitt went through last time,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who is backing Romney. “Others think he is cleverly distancing himself because of some of the prejudice against Mormons. And others think he is doing it to show a split, to show a contrast between him and Mitt.”

In Temple Square, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints occupies the Renaissance-style Joseph Smith Memorial Building, the granite neoclassical Church Administration Building and the 28-story Church Office Building, with two imposing maps of the world facing the street.

With 14 million faithful, the church is expanding its reach around the globe, but there’s a growing question within its ranks: Is it big enough for two presidential candidates?

Inside the church, officials expressed some optimism that candidacies by both Romney and Huntsman could help portray Mormonism as a big-tent religion, where different views and levels of devoutness are tolerated. But a wariness also remains that having two Mormon candidates in the race could intensify the scrutiny on the church. Should the church respond to each charge about each tenet? If it does, will Mormon leaders appear partisan or defensive? If not, will critics define both the faith and the candidates unfairly?

On Sunday morning, the 360 members of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang “Rejoice, the Lord Is King!” and then the theme song from the movie “The Mission” under the white dome. A buttery-voiced announcer delivered his remarks (“Home can be a slice of heaven”) and the 11,000 organ pipes sounded the final note of the choir’s performance. Visitors poured out onto Temple Square.

Waiting there, two young sister missionaries advertised a tour of the grounds for English speakers. Holding Books of Mormon marked with Post-it notes, the young women led a group of a half-dozen tourists by snow-capped statues of Joseph Smith and his first wife, Emma. Inside the Visitor Center, a life-size diorama depicted early church prophet Brigham Young as he led the Mormons to Utah’s flats.

The tour guides stopped in front of a model of the Mormon Temple, where a woman on the tour asked why non-Mormons couldn’t enter the edifice, the spires of which loomed directly outside the center.

The guide answered that it was a sacred place and that even the faithful needed special preparation before entering. “You wouldn’t send a kindergartner into a college algebra class,” she reasoned.

To enter the landmark temple, Mormons need to possess a “temple recommend.” This small slip of paper, similar in size to a car registration, bears a gold stamp of the temple and includes a bar code and signatures from church prelates. Generally, only Mormons in good standing — those who pass biennial interviews with bishops, pay a 10 percent tithe to the church and wear the sacred undergarments — receive a recommend.

Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom confirmed that “Mitt does have a recommend.”

Huntsman declined to comment on whether he held the document.

“I would be very, very surprised if Huntsman Jr. doesn’t have a temple recommend,” said Richard Ostling, co-author of “Mormon America: The Power and the Promise.” He added, “I doubt there is much daylight between these two guys.”

But many Republicans faithful to the church in Utah dismissed Huntsman as a “Jack Mormon,” a derogatory term referring to a non-practicing Mormon. At the end of his time as governor, Huntsman earned the enmity of Republicans across the state by coming out in support of civil unions for same-sex couples, which about 70 percent of Republicans in Utah opposed. Republican insiders said the move was a blatant attempt by a presidential aspirant to position himself as a moderate. In March 2009, he signed into law the most sweeping loosening of Utah’s liquor laws in 40 years.

But according to a Republican official with direct knowledge of the effort to loosen the liquor laws, Huntsman used his privileged status within the church to help pass the law. According to the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to anger the Huntsman family or the church, Huntsman bypassed conservative lawyers in middle management and appealed directly to the church leaders to relax the liquor laws.

“He used his relationship with the church to run from the church,” the Republican official said.

“Huntsman started putting distance between himself and the church when he was still in office,” said Quin Monson, a political science professor at BYU. He added that Mormons identified much more with Romney, who took a punch for the religion when he gave his speech defending Mormonism. “Huntsman won’t give that speech.”

Back in the basement of the BYU library, Jake Frandsen, 27, handed out leaflets for a symposium on Mormon missionary work, “Go Ye Into All the World.” He said people around the university and church were talking about how Huntsman’s secular turn might be an effort to cast the devout Romney as “scary.”

“I understand why some people are bothered by it,” said Frandsen, who said he preferred to keep religion and politics separate. “Why play the Mormon card? Even if it’s to distance yourself, it’s still playing the religion card. Just leave it out.”

The headquarters of the Huntsman Corp. (“Enriching Lives Through Innovation”) sits close to the This Is the Place Monument in Emigration Canyon, where Mormon tradition holds that Brigham Young completed the arduous trek of his followers. An inscription greeting visitors in the gleaming lobby reads: “Only a few hundred yards south of this building, the first party of Mormon pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847. A Huntsman forebear and Mormon Apostle, Orson Pratt, led an advance team into the valley on July 21.”

Pratt’s brother, Parley, a contemporary of Joseph Smith’s and one of the church’s earliest missionaries, was the great-great-great-grandfather of Huntsman, and the great-great-grandfather of Mitt Romney. In 1885, Romney’s great-grandfather Miles Park Romney fled from U.S. authorities who wanted to enforce anti-polygamy laws and, at the direction of church officials, settled a colony for polygamous Mormons in Mexico. During the Mexican Revolution in 1912, the Romneys (including Mitt’s father, George, then only 5 years old) returned to the United States. George Romney grew up to become the head of American Motors Corp., the governor of Michigan, a presidential candidate and then a Cabinet member in the Nixon administration.

Huntsman, too, has an epic family history. His mother, Karen, is the daughter of David B. Haight, the former mayor of Palo Alto, Calif., where Huntsman was born in 1960. In 1976, Haight became a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the church elders who sit in power directly under the presidential council. In 1956, Karen attended the University of Utah, where for two years she roomed with Jane Romney.

“I came out here from California and she came out from Michigan,” Karen said, adding that Jane drove out in “a little Nash Rambler,” the car George Romney used to help turn around American Motors.

Huntsman’s father, Jon Sr., started out making plastic egg cartons and got his break making the polystyrene clamshell packaging for McDonald’s Big Macs. Decades of wise acquisitions and innovations have turned his corporation into a chemical giant. In the 1970s, he served as an executive assistant to Richard M. Nixon. He has hosted Margaret Thatcher at his Deer Valley manse and has regularly gone fly-fishing with Dick Cheney. In 1988, he ran for governor of Utah but suddenly dropped out during a private meeting in a church parking lot with Republican Gov. Norm Bangerter.

On Thursday afternoon, as Jon Sr. recovered from a broken rib, his son Peter sat in his father’s expansive office. On a coffee table, a Chinese magazine cover framed the beaming faces of Jon Huntsman Jr., his blond wife, Mary Kaye, and the daughter they adopted in China, Gracie. Peter Huntsman joked about the “Mormon mafia” as he showed older photos of Huntsman Sr. with hotel magnates Bill Marriott and his father, John Willard Marriott, after whom Willard Mitt Romney is named.

A family wedding photo shows the Huntsman children and more than 50 grandchildren. In another shot, family members posed in Moscow with former church president Howard Hunter, one of the several Mormon prophets to whom the Huntsman family has made its private planes available. That courtesy, Peter said, continues to this day.

Peter dismissed all the agita about his brother’s apparent distancing from the church. Regarding the Fortune interview, Peter clarified that Jon was simply reacting to the reporter’s recitation of all his father’s high-ranking positions in the church. “The reporter was listing all these titles that he had in the church,” said Peter. “And my brother said, ‘No, I’m not that religious.’ ”

He called Romney a good man and said he had done a great service to all Mormons by countering some stubborn stereotypes about the religion. “He wasn’t a polygamist, he didn’t have horns growing out of his head,” said Peter. “He appeared to have a normal family.

“From my brother’s perspective,” he continued, “I don’t think he would plow that same ground as Mitt. I would hope that he wouldn’t have to plow that same ground. I’m not sure he feels that he would have to.” In the next breath, though, he added, “Within the Mormon Church there is a lay ministry, and Mitt has surely been quite active in the church.”

In the lobby, Huntsman’s mother, Karen, walked under the inscription, wearing a rainbow sweater, vest and cowboy boots. She exuded unwavering poise and took a seat in front of a coffee table offering books by her husband (“Winners Never Cheat: Even in Difficult Times” — “Foreword by CNN’s Glenn Beck”).

“Religion is personal,” she said. “And everyone interprets it differently. No one could examine Mitt Romney or Jon Huntsman and decide what’s in that brain. To me, that’s a personal thing.”

Asked whether she thought the media would let her son’s faith stay private, she replied: “No. And those are the things he needs to decide on before he runs.”

On Saturday afternoon, Eric Bergoust, a gold medal winner in men’s aerial freestyle skiing, stood on a mountain in Olympic Park, barking orders to the young skiers flipping through the air behind him. Bergoust told a story about how Romney, then the Olympic chairman, sneaked up to him during a media interview early in the Games and dropped a slew of medals on his lap.

Bergoust recalled that Romney asked,“Hey Bergy, what do you think of the 2002 medals?” The skier, superstitious about seeing medals before winning them, only allowed: “They’re heavy.”

Bergoust finished 12th in the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, but the Games were a resounding success for Romney and his political career. Tour guides shuttling visitors around the winding bobsled track and steep ski-jump ramps boast that they were “probably the most profitable of any Winter Olympics.”

A critical line in the Romney resume is that he saved the Winter Olympics from scandal and disarray. But many critics close to the Games in Utah say that he, like many other politically ambitious politicians, including Jon Huntsman Jr., recognized the Games as a rare opportunity to launch a political career. The problem was securing the job.

Then-Gov. Mike Leavitt led the search and reached out to several prominent businessmen with strong connections to Utah, including Dave Checketts, the chief executive of Madison Square Garden in New York, who grew up in Utah, was raised Mormon and served as president of the NBA’s Utah Jazz from 1984 to 1991.

“It was a plum opportunity for someone to look like they were cleaning up a mess,” said Checketts, who argued that a lot of the heavy lifting for the Games had already been done. He said that both Huntsman and Romney realized the value of the prize. “They both saw it as a terrific political opportunity,” he said.

According to a source familiar with the selection process, Huntsman Jr., then the vice chairman of the Huntsman Corp. and already a former ambassador to Singapore, never personally expressed interest in the job. Instead, representatives who were “actively lobbying for Huntsman” made it known that he would be happy to take the job under one condition. “He didn’t want to be part of the search. He didn’t want to be one candidate among many,” said the person familiar with the selection process.

Kenneth H. Bullock, a former member of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee’s board, was a proponent of the chairmanship staying with a Utah figure and acted as a chief booster of Huntsman Jr. Bullock made the case to the governor that with Huntsman: “It wasn’t just an individual, you got the whole package. The Huntsmans don’t do things and fail.”

According to several people familiar with the process, Huntsman’s father aggressively boosted his son for the job.

Romney also had plenty of local backers, some more influential than others.

In 1994, Elder Robert D. Hales became a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Hales had served since 1985 as presiding bishop of the church, a position that functions as the church’s chief financial officer, overseeing its property and commercial interests and serving as a liaison to prominent Mormons in the business community. He trained at Harvard Business School and served as a bishop in Massachusetts.

According to one Olympic official who attended a meeting between Hales and the leadership of the Games at the Church Administration Building, the message from the church leader was clear.

“It would be great if we could find a way to get Mitt,” the participant recalled Hales saying, “because he has political aspirations in front of him.” The church declined to comment about the process.

“I don’t know the reason why they expanded the search after they had gone well down the road with Mitt,” said Checketts. After it became clear that Romney would be the choice, Checketts withdrew his name. “Literally the next morning,” he said, supporters of Romney and Huntsman aggressively sought to win Checketts’s endorsement for the job.

But according to the person with direct knowledge of the decision-making, Huntsman’s only-if-you-ask-me strategy backfired. “Because of his unwillingness to be considered among a slate of candidates,” the source said. “He took himself out.”

Leavitt ultimately selected Romney. The Huntsmans did not take it well.

After Romney’s appointment, the Huntsman clan privately fumed that Jon Jr. had been used to make a closed search look more open.

In the Salt Lake Tribune that July, Jon Sr. referred to Romney as “politically driven” and “very, very slick and fast-talking.” When Romney hired a fellow Mormon as the organizing committee’s chief operating officer, Jon Sr. complained: “They claim they’re going out and really scouring the world to find the best person, so Mitt brings in one of his cronies to be the COO. Another broken promise. Because we’ve got three LDS folks who are all cronies. Cronyism at its peak. These are not the Mormon Games.”

In July 1999, Jon Sr., who carried the Olympic torch during its relay in 2002, supported Romney’s leadership and raised money for the Games. The Huntsman family today argues that the Olympic tension has been overblown.

“I wouldn’t say that there is a rivalry as much as I would say that there is friendly competition,” said Peter Huntsman. “And you may have had different factions that were pulling for different people and thinking that the Olympics were in need of an outside face or an inside face, a turnaround artist versus a diplomat. . . . But Mitt did an excellent job managing it.”

If the Huntsman-Romney relationship survived the Olympics, it suffered a much more damaging blow in the run-up to the 2008 presidential campaign.

Early in the campaign cycle, Salt Lake City’s Deseret News described Huntsman as “backing” Romney, after the then-Utah governor told the paper’s editorial board that he was writing position papers for Romney on China. Huntsman and his wife, Mary Kaye, met privately with Romney and his wife, Ann, according to a Romney adviser, who added that Huntsman on multiple occasions pledged his support to Romney and was privy to campaign strategy. Then, in July 2006, Romney read in the newspapers that Huntsman Jr. had endorsed McCain for president.

Not surprisingly, Romney was livid.

“There were some angry calls,” said Karen Huntsman. Speaking as serenely as ever, she adjusted the cuff of her sleeve and said: “If I had a son running for president, and my best friend voted for his opposition, it wouldn’t make me mad. That’s your choice.”

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