Presidential hopefuls Huntsman, Romney share Mormonism and belief in themselves

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 4, 2011; 2:26 AM

IN SALT LAKE CITY -- 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.

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