Jon Huntsman Jr. was leaving for dinner here early Friday evening when he was greeted on the front porch of his hotel by another guest. “I’m looking forward to supporting you,” the guest said, “but I haven’t heard you yet.”
The remark summed up the anticipation — and the absence of information — that surrounds the former governor of Utah. For the past two years, he was the U.S. ambassador to China, appointed by President Obama. By June, he is likely to be running for the Republican presidential nomination with the goal of unseating the man who sent him to Beijing.
A more awkward political pivot is hard to imagine, but Huntsman, who returned to the United States about a week ago, appears ready to try to pull it off. With the Republican field still taking shape and dissatisfaction with the choices evident among party activists, the little-known Huntsman and the team of advisers he has assembled think there is opportunity for a fresh face to shake up the GOP race.
Huntsman’s first public outing post-China was a nonpolitical event. On Saturday morning, he was the featured speaker at commencement exercises for the University of South Carolina’s College of Arts and Sciences. The only signs that this might be a campaign in the making were the presence of his young videographer prowling the stage as he spoke and a retinue of advisers standing off to the side.
His speech sounded little like a candidate’s, which was understandable given the setting. But two things were noteworthy. Huntsman spoke about the harsh repression of dissidents in the country he just left, rather than taking note of China’s economic prowess. In fact, he dismissed the idea that China was “the next big thing.” America, he said, still holds the world’s attention.
He also offered the first hint of how he will try to persuade Republicans that his service in the Obama administration is not, on its face, disqualifying. He will tell skeptical Republicans he went to China out of a sense of patriotic duty, not a personal allegiance to the president.
On Saturday, he couched it as part of his advice to the graduates. If asked, serve your country, he told them, adding: “I was, by a president of a different political party. But in the end, while we might not all be of one party, we are all part of one nation.”
Huntsman, a fluent Mandarin speaker, has dived into preparations for a possible campaign. Last Sunday, he held a series of meetings with his advisers. He later traveled to New York to meet with prospective donors and fundraisers. In South Carolina this weekend, he met with newly elected Republican Gov. Nikki Haley and with state Attorney General Henry McMaster, who praised him effusively.
Stops next week will include more sessions with fundraisers and a meeting with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has captivated many Republicans with his tough talk about getting spending under control and who has ruled out running for president in 2012.
Later this month, Huntsman will deliver another commencement address, this time in New Hampshire. That trip, unlike the visit to South Carolina, will include a string of public events aimed at stoking interest in his prospective candidacy. His team is managing a media rollout to help introduce him to the country.
While Huntsman was finishing up in China, his campaign was taking shape under the direction of John Weaver, a veteran strategist who once was a top adviser to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Weaver has recruited others from past McCain campaigns and elsewhere to staff Huntsman’s possible run. Unlike Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who is also on the cusp of a decision about running, Huntsman has some of the infrastructure in place for a candidacy.
Huntsman might be little known, but he comes to the starting gate with some obvious assets. He is handsome. He is enormously wealthy, thanks to the chemicals business his father built. His resume ranks with those of better-known candidates. He can point to extensive public service not only as governor and ambassador to China but also in the administrations ofGeorge W. Bush, George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. He rides a motorcycle and played in a rock band as a youth.
Whether he can fit himself into the new Republican Party is the big question — and not just because of his service under Obama, who has ribbed him at every opportunity about how well that will go down with Republican primary voters. Long before he went to China, he was compiling a record that will command scrutiny and, no doubt, questions from his rivals.
That record includes past support for aggressive action to combat climate change with a cap-and-trade regime that is now anathema to many Republicans. Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty has offered an apology to GOP voters for having taken the same position. Huntsman advisers say he will outline his views at an appropriate time and will emphasize the need for a new overall energy policy for the country.
On social and cultural issues, he opposes same-sex marriage but has voiced support for civil unions. That position is no different from that of either George W. Bush or Obama but might worry some social conservatives. Offsetting that, he opposes abortion and is a strong supporter of the Second Amendment. “He’s done some hunting in his life,” said Richard Quinn, a South Carolina-based strategist who is part of the Huntsman team. And then, in a dig at Mitt Romney, he added, “I think he’s shot more than varmints.”
Romney presents a clear obstacle to Huntsman, and vice versa. Both are Mormons, and although each is independently wealthy, they will be competing for the sizable pool of money and support in the Mormon community. More significantly, their paths to the nomination go through similar states.
Neither is likely to be a good fit in Iowa because of the dominance of social conservatives there. That means New Hampshire and South Carolina are critical. Romney currently has the edge in New Hampshire, which may be why Huntsman chose the Palmetto State for his first public appearance as a prospective candidate.
Huntsman’s goal will be to convince Republicans that he is the most electable among the field of candidates. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has not taken sides, calls Huntsman “a guy to watch.” But can a former member of the Obama administration demonstrate he’s best prepared to defeat him?
“It’s an odd path to the nomination,” Graham said with a laugh, “but who knows?”