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Huntsman, Interrupted

Salt Lake City, Utah

Jon Huntsman Jr. wants to know if I'm in the mood for Mexican food for lunch. "I know a great place we can go downtown," the Utah governor says as we pile into the back seat of his black, tinted Suburban. (He goes there all the time, three of his aides separately assure me.) We drive south from Capitol Hill, passing the enormous Mormon temple in the center of town. The car finally turns into a Sears parking lot on the other side of the city, across the street from a pornography store that offers to "BUY AND SELL USED ADULT MAGAZINES AND DVDS."

Huntsman, shedding his jacket for a fleece that does little to hide his designer suit, jumps out of the car and runs up to a group of chaps-clad bikers on the side of the lot. "Looks like you got the Fatboy wheels, you got the Fatboy tank, a Dyna Glide engine, and some shotgun pipes on there," the governor says after mounting one. "Wanna hear them?" the owner asks. "Oh, I've heard them before," Huntsman said.

With the bikers left duly impressed, Huntsman makes his way over to the decrepit taco stand in the corner of the parking lot, offering "Hola"s and "Gracias"es to the bewildered patrons. Looking at the buckets full of brown onions and browner tomatoes left out to roast in the sun, I consider promising the governor to write about his "favorite taco stand" if we can actually eat somewhere else--but his aide is already placing an order for us.

We take a seat on the curb and try to eat the over-stuffed tortillas. "The best!" he says, wiping lettuce from his mouth. A middle-aged Hispanic man approaches us with his young son in tow and gestures to his camera phone. "Oh sure, of course, come right over," Huntsman says, plopping his plate on the sidewalk and putting his arm around the boy. The boy looks over at me and whispers in Spanish, "Is he the president?"

That’s what I came to Utah to find out--more precisely, would he be our next president? At the time, it was a reasonable question. A virtual unknown only six months ago, Huntsman had burst onto the national radar based largely on his declaration of support for civil unions in February--a shocking position for the Republican governor of the reddest state in the country. He then started using his new platform to brashly criticize his own party. Politico, which in February dubbed him "the fastest-rising star you have never heard of," by March described him as "an articulate, unapologetic, and unlikely spokesman for a new brand of Republicanism." By May, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe was describing Huntsman as "the one person in [the Republican Party] who might be a potential presidential candidate."

But it seems like Huntsman's appeal was getting to be too much for the Obama team to stomach: This past weekend, Obama nominated Huntsman to be ambassador to China--essentially undermining any chance that the young, moderate Republican would challenge him in 2012 by sending him to another continent for the next few years. Almost everyone I spoke with in the State Department and Utah politics confirms that the decision was not driven by Huntsman’s China expertise or business experience. "We all thought it was going to be [former State Department counselor] Wendy Sherman," says one source in the State Department. "Huntsman is incredibly fit for the job and will be well-received in China, but were there political motivations behind this? Everybody here thinks so."

If Huntsman was so well-positioned to be a serious contender in 2012, why would he accept a job that takes him out of the running? The story of Huntsman's meteoric rise in the GOP--and recent decision to bow out of the 2012 race--is not only a reflection of the depths to which the party has sunk, but also an indication of where it might be heading. And if Huntsman's savvy in making this decision is any indication, this is not the last we'll be seeing of him.

"I don't know if you've heard, but I have a thing for motorcycles," Huntsman tells me as we enter the capitol building. I couldn't help but notice. His office is a shrine to extreme sports and motocross racing, adorned with model motorcycles and photos of a mud-caked Huntsman riding a dirt bike. (A picture of the governor with George W. Bush is tucked nearly out of view on a bottom shelf.) An X-Lite helmet signed by Grand Prix winner Carl Checa sits on his windowsill, eclipsing the view of the Mormon temple down the hill.

Getting dirty and hanging out with roughnecks is certainly one way to prove that, despite being the son of one of the richest and most politically connected men in Utah, you're a regular guy. It's one half of the balancing act that defines much of Huntsman's appeal--his ability to be both an affable man-of-the-people and an urbane man-of-the-world.

After giving me a tour of his motorcycle collectibles, Huntsman is immediately joined by an aide who is helping to plan the governor's China trip for the Western Governors' Association, which Huntsman chairs. In retrospect, having watched him micromanage every detail of the trip--down to the type of translators they'll use and the specific regional governors they'll meet--I can see how his name wound up on Obama’s shortlist for the Beijing post. Huntsman served as the U.S. ambassador to Singapore under George H. W. Bush at age 32, the youngest head of an American diplomatic mission in over 100 years. His shelves are lined with dozens of books about China--ranging from China Hands to China, Inc.--and an oversized book of Chinese propaganda posters occupies much of the space on his coffee table. When the aide brings up concerns about coordinating with their Chinese counterparts, Huntsman gets the Chinese ambassador on the phone within minutes to work things out himself--in fluent Mandarin Chinese. (Huntsman learned the language while serving as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan during college.)

Hanging up the phone, Huntsman quickly ducks into a meeting with his council of economic and policy advisors, where he follows up on his office's efforts at health care reform and developing a statewide plan for energy efficiency. Huntsman, leaning back in a plush leather chair, fires off questions on the most technical aspects of these initiatives, seeming more like a CEO than a politician. It's a habit he picked up while a student at Wharton and at the helm of the Huntsman Corporation (Utah's largest company), not to mention as a deputy assistant secretary in the commerce department under George H. W. Bush and a deputy U.S. trade representative under President George W. Bush. To Huntsman, the economy should be a politician's "focus, laser-like," despite the fact that it doesn't "make for a very colorful and interesting sideshow."

Huntsman is certainly right: His skillful stewardship of the state's economy is not what propelled him onto the national stage. Huntsman, who was elected in 2004 as a fairly conventional Republican campaigning on a platform of economic development, first began breaking with his party over environmental issues--for instance, signing the bold Western Regional Climate Action Initiative. He then started taking relatively progressive stands on immigration, unions, and education. As opposed to some of the more conservative Republican governors, Huntsman accepted all the money from Obama's stimulus package offered to the state. "Limited government is important," Huntsman explains, "but I need to make sure that we have a government that actually delivers on issues that people expect us to manage competently and well."

By far his most explosive position has been his support for civil unions this year, a clear shift from his support during his 2004 campaign for Utah's constitutional gay marriage and civil union ban--which his spokeswoman says he now favors repealing. The position is particularly surprising in a state where, according to recent polls, 70 percent of people oppose civil unions. "I've always been in favor of equal rights," he says in explaining his stance. "What would Abraham Lincoln be doing if he were around today?" Huntsman says that he has little patience for the traditional "culture war" issues. "I'm not good at playing those games," he tells me. Huntsman was the only 2012 front-runner not to show at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference.

But defying all expectations, his popularity barely took a hit, sinking only from 90 to 84 percent. Emboldened, he started taking on the national party, excoriating GOP leaders for their knee-jerk obstructionism and narrow social conservatism. "I don't even know the [Republican] congressional leadership--I have not met them, I don't listen or read whatever it is they say because it is inconsequential, completely," he told The Washington Times in a scathing February interview. "Our moral soapbox was completely taken away from us because of our behavior in the last few years."

In dozens of interviews over the past few weeks, he has characterized Republicans as "devoid of ideas" and "gasping for air," decrying the GOP's "gratuitous partisanship," comparing it to "a very narrow party of angry people," and describing its strategy as "obstruct and obfuscate … grousing and complaining." When I ask him who he sees as potential leaders for the party, he says with a mischievous grin, "I don't know that we have one."

To be sure, Huntsman is no Republican In Name Only; his positions on abortion and gun control still hew quite closely to the Republican line. But he sees himself within a broader GOP tradition. "[Republicans] forget sometimes what Lincoln taught us about individual dignity and equal rights, what Roosevelt taught us about the environment and big stick diplomacy, about American power abroad and how we project it," he says, folding his hands beneath his chin and staring out his window. "We have Nixon who created the EPA, for heaven's sake. People forget that."

In challenging Republican heterodoxies at a time when most in the party seemed to be circling the wagons, Huntsman quickly became a political sensation. He made The Washington Post's list of the ten most influential Republicans this month (after being absent from a similar list only four months earlier), with the Post's Chris Cillizza crowning him "the most popular politician in the country at the moment."

Huntsman stands anxiously at the front of the Gold Room, a massive hall in Utah's capitol building decked in gold leafing, crystal chandeliers, and thick lavender velvet curtains. After presenting a bill on migratory bird protection--one of six bill signings today--Huntsman ushers the gathered hunting activists to the big wooden table at the center at the room for the requisite photo-op, which one of the activists interrupts to put a taxidermed mallard in front of the governor. As Huntsman struggles to keep his trademark smile perky for the pictures, six of the activists pull out wooden duck calls and start squawking jubilantly. "Sounds like the legislature is coming in," Huntsman jokes, quickly exchanging the requisite hand-shakes and pleasantries before darting out the back door.

I could already tell when I was in Utah in April that Huntsman was antsy with some of the more provincial aspects of being governor. But he was coy when I asked him if he had any intention of running for president. "It's kind of presumptuous to say that anybody is part of the mix for future office at this point," he tells me. As for being on everyone's shortlist for 2012, "Yeah, okay, my kids think it's positively hilarious. It proves to me they've really run through every other name in the party and so they're left with the few who are still standing as Republican elected officials--and probably proves a point that there aren't that many of us left."

But all indications were that he was already gearing up for a 2012 run. He had announced his intention not to seek a third term as governor. He had taken a number of recent trips to key Republican primary states such as Michigan and South Carolina, where he met with state kingmakers, and hosted major donors to the Republican Governor's Association in Utah in March. He had been flying to places as far away as India and Israel on "trade missions" for the state. "Though Israel is a legitimate subject for business ventures, it's also useful for a presidential hopeful to be able to say, ‘When I was in Israel ....'," snarked Utah's Daily Herald. He also consulted with Republican uber-strategist Frank Luntz and, according to Politico, was a month away from launching a PAC. "Huntsman is clearly positioning for a 2012 run," Cillizza wrote earlier this month.

If Huntsman was planning to run for president, why would he move so brazenly to the left at a time when the GOP seems to be heading rightward? The most obvious reason is that he may actually be a moderate. "I'm not very good at tags," he tells me. "I just try to do my best, and maybe that makes me a pragmatist." He joins a long tradition of moderate Republicans from Utah, despite--or perhaps because of--the fact that the state is the reddest in the country, with the GOP holding every statewide office and more than two-thirds of the state legislature. The GOP lock on Utah politics allows the party to welcome a broader swathe of politicians, and breed leaders who are less combative and ideological than their besieged colleagues in more competitive states. And if Huntsman has learned anything from the failed Mitt Romney campaign, it is that the only thing worse for a Republican than not being a conservative is being a phony conservative.

But on a more strategic level, Huntsman was forced to fill the political space that had been left for him by the current front-runners--including Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, and Romney himself--who were all pandering to the conservative wing of the party. Huntsman would have had a tough time competing for the same constituency as them; better to take the long shot that Republicans would be looking for a moderate in three years. In the meantime, he could sit back and let the more conservative candidates beat each other up.

If that sounds a lot like John McCain's 2008 strategy, it's probably not a coincidence. Huntsman has considered McCain both a close personal friend and a role model ever since the two took a trip to Iraq together in 2006 and Huntsman agreed to chair his political action committee. Huntsman shocked Utah's political establishment by endorsing McCain in the 2008 presidential primary over the Mormon state's favorite son, Romney. And, a few weeks ago, he even took on McCain's chief campaign strategist, John Weaver, as an advisor.

Huntsman seems to have learned another lesson from the Romney campaign: A Mormon, no matter how conservative, cannot win amongst the right wing of the party--particularly evangelicals. Romney thought he could win their favor by becoming a drum-beating social conservative, underestimating the deep-rooted antipathy many evangelicals have toward Mormons. A recent Pew poll found that 39 percent of evangelicals hold negative views of Mormons--a sentiment Mike Huckabee used against Romney. Though RNC Chair Michael Steele was lambasted last week for saying "the base ... rejected Mitt because it had issues with Mormonism," he wasn't that far off: According to a study by John C. Green and Mark Silk, the size of the evangelical community was one of the best predictors of Romney's success or failure in each state; without the evangelical vote, they argue, Romney probably would have won in four of the five southern states he lost. In light of Romney's experience, the more likely base for Huntsman would have been the moderate wing of the party, which is less concerned with religion in general (and the LDS church specifically).

But not leaving that to chance, Huntsman also actively worked to distance himself from the LDS church in recent months. His statement of support for civil unions came right on the heels of the Mormon church's very visible role in passing Proposition 8 in California. "I felt as governor that I needed to respond," he admits. Though bold in its own right, the position also establishes his independence from the church. He similarly flouted LDS doctrine this March by overturning Utah's restrictive alcohol laws, originally implemented in 1935 under pressure from the church. "It might sound like a small thing to people on the outside, but it was actually fairly historic move," he tells me. Some say his endorsement of McCain over Romney was also meant to show his independence from the Mormon community.

Huntsman was assembling all the pieces for his presidential campaign. And as he positioned himself as the next John McCain, he was gaining traction nationally: According to a nationwide March poll, likely 2012 voters chose Huntsman's vision for the GOP over Rush Limbaugh's vision by 20 points. So what happened?

Huntsman received a rude awakening from the GOP rank-and-file, who don't seem to be looking for another maverick in 2012. Last month, the Kent County Republican Party in Michigan revoked a speaking invitation. "The voters want and expect us to stand on principle and return to our roots. Unfortunately, by holding an event with Governor Huntsman, we would be doing the exact opposite," Chairwoman Joanne Voorhees wrote in an e-mail to party members. "Presumably he is testing the waters [for a presidential run] and we hope he realizes now the waters in Michigan will be hazardous to someone who endorses the homosexual activist political agenda," elaborated Gary Glenn, director of the Campaign for Michigan Families, to the Salt Lake Tribune. "That whole experience really jarred him," says a source close to Huntsman.

The party elite doesn't seem to like him much either. Huntsman was one of the only national Republican figures to be left out of the National Council for a New America--the Republican Party’s national outreach effort to rebrand itself--which includes Palin, Romney, and Jindal.

Huntsman lacked the national profile that allowed McCain to buck the party line and build his own constituency. The scion of one of Utah's most prominent and well-liked families, he was able to win a fiercely competitive Republican primary for governor in 2004 based largely on his last name. But the moniker will not get him far outside the Beehive State. "It's safe to say that Governor Huntsman's name ID is zero in New Hampshire," Fergus Cullen, the former Republican Party chairman in the key early primary state, told the Salt Lake Tribune. As recently as last month, both CNN and The Dallas Morning News referred to the governor as "Jim Huntsman."

And if Huntsman was on his way to becoming a household name, it was largely because of his stance on civil unions--a position that would not play well in early primary states like Iowa, where the party faithful are still roiling over the state supreme court's recent decision to legalize gay marriage. According to a recent University of Iowa poll, 53 percent of Iowa Republicans wish to ban gay marriage and civil unions through a constitutional amendment. All the leading Republican candidates other than Huntsman oppose civil unions.

During our conversations last month in Utah, Huntsman had already begun to realize that perhaps the Republican Party was not ready for him. "You cannot have a successful party based upon a very narrow band, demographically," he tells me. "You've gotta broaden it to include more young people, more people of color, more people who are urban-dwellers, more who are the intelligentsia in America, many who have jettisoned the party. … And that's ultimately I think how it's going to play out. We're just not there yet." Two years was probably not enough time for the party to change. "He realized he'd just be beating his head against the wall with these guys, which made him open to the phone call [from Obama]," says another source close to Huntsman. "If he thought he had a real chance to be the standard-bearer and savior of the party, obviously he would have said no."

Huntsman has a good role-model for his duck-and-run strategy: George H. W. Bush, who went to China as ambassador in the 1970s while Republicans dealt with the Watergate fallout. He was able to avoid the Republican bloodbath at the 1974 polls, and return relatively unscathed from the fracas--eventually making his way to the White House. Heading to Beijing will allow Huntsman to sit out the mess that will probably envelop the GOP over the next few years, and return as a fresh face in time to gear up for 2016. It is also likely that some of his more controversial positions, particularly on civil unions, will become less toxic by then.

The ambassadorship also equips Huntsman well for a later presidential run. Representing the United States to perhaps our most important strategic rival will give him top-notch foreign policy chops. And since the 2016 race could well be a competition for heir to the Obama mantle, Huntsman will now have bipartisan cred to add to his youth and proven pragmatism in claiming it; an appointment from the man himself doesn't hurt either.

To be sure, the position does entail some risks for Huntsman. He will be at the center of such GOP hot-button issues as China's currency devaluation (about which Rustbelt Republicans introduced a bill in the House last week) and Beijing's human rights abuses, neither of which has an easy solution that would satisfy the party's base. He will also be the administration's pointman in getting China's cooperation on Iran, North Korea, and Darfur--all attempts that are likely to fail, and can be used against him during a future presidential run. "There is the danger that he appears to have become a panda-hugger," says Chris Nelson, the editor of Samuels International Associates' Nelson Report about foreign policy and trade issues, who has worked with Huntsman for over a decade. "That's always a vulnerability for any U.S. government official, and even more so for a Republican guy serving a Democratic president. I don't see how he can avoid that."

Still, the appointment appears to make a lot of sense for Huntsman. It also, of course, makes perfect sense for Obama. Sources in the State Department say that while Wendy Sherman was the front-runner for the post, the Obama camp was concerned that she was too focused on North Korea (she was the North Korea policy coordinator under Madeleine Albright) and that she was too close to Clinton. And since Timothy Geithner will be handling much of the administration’s economic relations with China, the next biggest item on the agenda is collaborating with China on climate change. "The focus will shift to environment," the State Department staffer says--an issue on which Huntsman is particularly qualified. Huntsman's experience as a politician will also help him sell some of Obama's pragmatic China policies back at home.

But it is no coincidence that the impetus to appoint Huntsman came from Obama's political staff, not the State Department. It is unlikely that Obama actually felt threatened by a Huntsman run--but at the very least, confronting him in a campaign would have been tougher than running against some of the more right-wing GOP contenders. And on a broader level, by sending Huntsman to China, Obama ensures that Rush Limbaugh and Dick Cheney remain the chief Republican spokesmen, further alienating the party from mainstream voters in time for the 2010 midterms and even the 2012 elections. Appointing Huntsman also helps Obama shore up his bipartisan credentials after the failed debacle of his Judd Gregg appointment.

In fact, perhaps the only loser in Huntsman's appointment is the Republican Party itself. In light of Arlen Specter's defection and Tom Ridge's decision not to run for his Senate seat, the clear message is that there is no place in the party for moderate voices. Huntsman's departure clears the way for Romney to continue his ascendancy to front-runner status, unencumbered by the presence of another wealthy, Mormon, business-savvy technocrat in the race.

Huntsman is perfectly content to bide his time. Quoting political historian Theodore White, he told me when we spoke last month that he was happy to defer "to the inevitable cycles of history. Some of them are so inexorable you can't fight against them." In deciding to go to China, he seemed to be conceding that he wasn't going to win the battle for the GOP's soul this time around. Better to wait for the cycles of history to align in your favor.

Correction: This article originally stated that Huntsman was one of the only Republican governors to accept money from Obama’s stimulus package. The article has been corrected to reflect the fact that all governors eventually accepted some amount of stimulus money. Huntsman accepted all the money offered to his state while many Republican governors rejected parts of the funding.