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Presidential hopefuls Huntsman, Romney share Mormonism and belief in themselves

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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.

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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?


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