Huntsman seeks to break into GOP pack

Former Utah governor to make first N.H. swing

By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / May 14, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Jon M. Huntsman Jr. shares many traits with his potential GOP rival Mitt Romney. He is a wealthy former corporate executive, a Mormon, and a former Republican governor. Both men have Ivy League pedigrees and camera-ready good looks.

As Huntsman edges closer to a presidential run, he shares another similarity: an early strategy that emphasizes the influential moderate and independent voters in the first-in-the-nation primary state of New Hampshire.

Huntsman, who plans his first trip to New Hampshire next week, is surrounded by former advisers to Senator John McCain — who twice won the state’s GOP presidential primary — and hopes to put a dent in Romney’s lead.

“We strongly feel there’s a lot of blue sky for somebody like Governor Huntsman in New Hampshire,’’ said John Weaver, a top McCain strategist who is now advising Huntsman.

And while their candidate lacks Romney’s poll numbers, Huntsman’s advisers say the two-time ambassador and former governor of Utah will more than make up for that with attributes they say the former Massachusetts governor lacks: an engaging personal style and clear guiding principles.

While Romney can come across as stiff and programmed, they say, Huntsman rides motorcycles, once played keyboards in a rock band, and considers himself a street food connoisseur (he has an affinity for taco stands).

“He’s like Romney, only with a personality,’’ said Richard Quinn, a Huntsman adviser and top GOP consultant in South Carolina. “He’s got a sense of humor, he’s got a twinkle in his eye, he’s comfortable in his skin.’’

Romney aides declined to respond to the Huntsman camp’s critiques, displaying little appetite to get into a back-and-forth with an unannounced potential rival who has yet to register with voters. In a poll conducted late last month of 400 likely New Hampshire primary voters, exactly one person — or 0.25 percent — supported Huntsman. Romney got 35 percent.

Huntsman — who resigned as President Obama’s ambassador to China last month — is little known outside of Washington circles and his home state of Utah, where he served as governor from 2005 to 2009.

So far in the precampaign season, he has traveled to South Carolina for a commencement address and to Florida to meet with Republicans.

Huntsman plans to give a commencement address at Southern New Hampshire University next week, part of a four-day trip to the Granite State that includes a series of house parties and private meetings. The trip is expected to provide the first indications of what type of campaign he would run.

Huntsman declined to be interviewed about his possible plans to run for president.

A key to a New Hampshire primary victory, election analysts say, could be undeclared voters, who can vote in either the Republican or the Democratic primaries. Because next year will be the first time since 1996 that the Democrats won’t have a competitive primary, many of those unenrolled voters will be inclined to vote in the Republican primary. They make up 42 percent of the voters.

“There’s a huge amount of the electorate that is up for grabs,’’ said Fergus Cullen, former N.H. state Republican Party chairman. “All the candidates right now are trying to appeal to the Tea Party component of the party, and no one is campaigning directly to mainstream Republican voters.’’

Those urging Huntsman to run say he has both the fresh face and credentials that could capture the imagination of mainstream Republicans hungry for a new leader. In a not-so-subtle dig at Romney, they frequently refer to Huntsman as “authentic.’’

One big challenge for Huntsman is convincing conservative voters that he can be trusted after serving in Obama’s State Department.

“I don’t understand why someone who was part of the Obama administration and is an Obama-ite would think they could win the Republican nomination,’’ said former New Hampshire governor John H. Sununu. “It is pretty clear that the credentials he’s presenting seem to make liberals in the Democratic Party very comfortable. The Republicans ought to nominate a clear Republican with strong conservative principles.’’

Sununu, who recently stepped down as state GOP chairman, also called Huntsman “wishy-washy.’’

Weaver rejected Sununu’s critique, casting Huntsman’s role in the Obama administration as a patriotic one.

“If he had turned down the president because of party, I think that would have been disqualifying,’’ Weaver said. “He’s had the luxury and privilege of being asked by four presidents, including President Reagan, of serving his country. I think it speaks well of him. We’re proud of that, and we’re going to shine a light on it.’’

While he could fill a void of excitement in the race, Huntsman still seems particularly out-of-step with a critical Republican constituency — the Tea Party movement. He believes that climate change is caused by humans, for example, and has supported a cap-and-trade system for limiting greenhouse gases.

He also not only supported the economic stimulus program so despised by conservatives, he once said it should have been larger. He supports civil unions for gay couples.

Some within the Tea Party movement welcome Huntsman to the race — because they think it could make it easier for one of their candidates to win.

“I say all the moderates who get in the better, because it will split the vote and make it easier for a Tea Party candidate to win the nomination,’’ said Andrew Hemingway, a Tea Party activist and chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus in New Hampshire. “He’s not the answer for America at this time.’’

So far, Huntsman’s campaign is emphasizing conservative positions, citing legislation he signed to limit abortions in Utah and loosen gun laws.

“Jon has a strong consistent conservative record,’’ Weaver said. “When people look at his record — of cutting taxes across the board, of having a free-market approach to health care, of being pro-life consistently — it’s going to match up very, very well of not just Tea Party members but of the country as a whole.’’

Huntsman’s early primary strategy would probably mirror Romney’s in other aspects, including a particular emphasis on Nevada, where Mormons make up about a quarter of Republican voters. Huntsman advisers also say he would make a strong play in South Carolina and may base his campaign in Florida.

Whit Ayres, a GOP consultant who has signed on to be Huntsman’s pollster if he runs, said Huntsman’s advisers have not done any polling yet on whether voters will be wary of Huntsman because of his Mormon faith, something some voters still suggest will keep them from voting for Romney.

Huntsman grew up in Utah, and his father became a billionaire after founding Huntsman Corp., a plastics packaging company that created the containers that hold Big Macs.

After losing a bid for senior class president of his high school, he dropped out and became the keyboardist in a band named Wizard. He later got his GED, went to the University of Utah and the University of Pennsylvania, and became fluent in Mandarin Chinese while doing Mormon mission work in Taiwan.

After working as a staff assistant for President Reagan, Huntsman was appointed ambassador to Singapore by President H.W. Bush. At 32, he was the youngest ambassador in a century.

Over the years, Romney and Huntsman have developed a simmering political rivalry, according to press accounts and some who know both men. Huntsman was said to be interested in heading the Winter Olympics in 2000, a job that went to Romney and helped propel his career.

Early in the 2008 presidential nominating contest, Huntsman was an informal adviser to Romney on foreign policy. But a year later, he announced he was endorsing McCain — something Romney learned through news reports.

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