Could Jon Huntsman be the answer to the Republican Party's prayers?
David Usborne spends some quality time with the man who may prove the greatest threat to Obama
Saturday 25 June 2011
For those of us crammed into the sixth floor of an anonymous office tower in downtown Orlando it is like witnessing the rushed birth of a corporation.
The beaming CEO arrives to cut a ribbon with cardboard scissors and to give a pep talk to eager workers he has never met before. The place will soon be a hub of mad activity but today rows of doors reveal offices without furniture, and no one has business cards yet.
Quick off the mark, however, have been the branding people. Posters are everywhere sporting a snazzy "H" logo in red and black, as if advertising a new men's scent or a department store.
It stands for Huntsman, first name Jon, whom everyone has come to see. And although business has been a big part of this Utah native's life, what he's launching here is different: he is running to be president of the United States of America.
Mr Huntsman, 51, with is matinee-idol looks and picture-perfect family – he and his wife, Mary Kaye, have seven children, the last two adopted from China and India – announced before the Statue of Liberty on Tuesday that he was crashing the party to seek the Republican nomination for president.
His quest to become the chosen one to take on President Barack Obama in 2012 has the political parlours of America in a tizzy. No one is yet able to guess whether he might catch fire and snatch the front-runner's position from Mitt Romney – a fellow Mormon and distant cousin – or fizzle out in the first furlong.
That it will be tricky hoeing has not escaped him. He has chosen to compete in a year when, in the primary process at least, the conservative wing of the party will be more influential than ever. This is problematic for a man who favours civil unions for gays, who believes global warming is man-made and who even this week has voiced his respect for President Obama, for whom until 53 days ago he was ambassador in China.
For all his acumen, his first days on the trail have been marked by mild chaos. Here, he arrives one hour late for the ribbon cutting. At Lady Liberty, aides handed out press passes with Jon spelled as John. And someone else who is not a fan has claimed ownership of jonhuntsman.com and posted on the site a letter the candidate wrote praising Mr Obama in 2009 on his dispatch to Beijing, fringed with valentine hearts.
"It's going to be a hard-fought battle, I can tell you that," he warns when finally he grasps a microphone, his wife and five of his children and one son-in-law at his side. "We know it's going to be tough, and it's going to be bruising, and there are going to be some tough days."
Mr Huntsman, however, has an electric smile and even here there is no mistaking the ease with which he shakes hands and talks to staff and would-be supporters. If the FPH – feet per hour – a candidate covers working a crowd is a measure of skilful campaigning, he looks like a champion. He covers barely 20ft in a quarter of an hour.
His focus at this event is on his staff as much as on voters, however. And he offers some guiding principles he says he wants them to hold close. The first is what every candidate will say this year. "To all those who will be roaming these halls I want you just keep in mind jobs and the economy. I don't want you ever to forget what is driving this campaign. This is about getting the greatest nation that there ever was back on its feet again." But the smiling Mormon also reiterates something else he wants as a key theme of his campaign that some think will be his Achilles heel. It's about niceness.
"Civility means something," he offers to applause. "I don't believe that you have to run down another human being to run for president of the United States." This, he goes on, is about, "civility, respect and that sense of decency and humanity that made this great country. A lot of people would say that we are a great country because we are good country. We are a good country and we have a good heart."
Even in the room not everyone is convinced the civility pledge is wise, even if he is able to live up to it.
"This nice-guy thing is going to have to go away real quick," whispers Ron McKinney, a big cheese in the investment banking community in Orlando and an influential power-broker among Florida Republicans.
"There is no such thing as civility in politics. Nice guys usually come in ... well, you finish the sentence."
But Mr Huntsman knows a thing or two about politics and getting votes. He won a second term as governor of Utah in 2008 with an astonishing 78 per cent of the vote, and by most measures he was deemed to have been a particularly effective steward of his state until he answered the call to go to China the next year.
Hailing from Mormon-majority Utah, of course, has both an upside and a downside. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints offer both him (and Mr Romney) a potentially very deep pool of campaign donations. A recent Gallup poll suggested, however, that almost a quarter of American voters would pause before electing a Mormon as president.
For Mr Romney, another former Republican governor and successful tycoon (he used to run Massachusetts), the addition of Mr Huntsman to the field might be good news if it dilutes the Mormon factor for him on the stump. But it means he now has competition for those Mormon dollars that helped him build a credible campaign in 2008, even if the nomination was eventually won by Senator John McCain. Who, by the way, was Mr Romney's national finance chairman last time? Jon Huntsman Sr, this candidate's father.
The men are intertwined by blood and romance also. An early Mormon missionary, Parley Pratt, is Mr Huntsman's great-great-great-grandfather and Mr Romney's great-great-grandfather. Huntsman's maternal grandfather was best friends with Mr Romney's father. His uncle once dated Mr Romney's sister.
Both families also have traditions of money-making. Jon Huntsman Sr, a highly successful industrialist in Utah, is known on occasion to lend company jets to the leaders of the Church. His wealth was founded in part on his company inventing the "clam-shell" packing that Big Macs come in.
The styles of the men do not mesh in the same way. It may be generational. Over a decade younger, Mr Huntsman emphasises engaging young Republicans in his speech here today and, while he has no difficulty working the crowd and grasping hands, Romney can suffer from awkwardness on the trail.
The hullabaloo of the ribbon-cutting and staff-greeting completed, Mr Huntsman invites a small group of reporters into one of the side offices – chairs are quickly brought in – to detail how he expects to win this race even in the new Tea Party era. It will begin by his skipping the caucuses in Iowa, which open the process and which over the years have become especially difficult terrain for moderates.
Instead, the Huntsman campaign will focus all of its resources at the outset on three early primary states: New Hampshire, South Carolina and then Florida. (Putting his campaign HQ here is an acknowledgement of the pivotal role the Sunshine State has played in every recent presidential race.) "It will be a bit like running gubernatorial campaigns in three states simultaneously," Mr Huntsman suggests.
To an extent he is copying pages from Mr McCain's song book. Crucially, the primary races in New Hampshire and South Carolina are open to every voter and not just Republicans. If he can appeal to moderate Republicans, independents and even some Democrats who maybe disenchanted with Mr Obama, he could become a powerful contender, especially if the Tea Party vote is split by other rivals.
He meanwhile dismisses the suggestion that his emphasis on civility can never last and might hurt him. "You know, whenever I talk about this people clap and cheer. We talk about Afghanistan, we talk about balancing the economy, we talk about energy independence, we talk about a lot of things. But when we talk about civility, people respond positively everywhere where I go."
For now, Republican voters want to see more of Mr Huntsman before deciding if he is a viable runner. (He is barely registering in the polls.) "I like his temperament, he seems like a level-headed guy and I want to learn more about him," says Naeem Coleman, 31, an estate agent who has come here to the sixth floor to hear him speak.
It is Mary Kaye Huntsman who captures that sense of a candidacy just hatching as she introduces him to the room. "Meet the most undiscovered leader in America today, whom you are soon going to know so much more about," she declares.
From Ambassador to President – not such a well-trodden path
*Thomas Jefferson was ambassador to France between 1785 and 1789, supporting the revolutionaries when the French Revolution broke out towards the end of his term. On his return to the US he was immediately made Secretary of State and by 1801 he was in the White House.
*George H W Bush served as ambassador to the United Nations between 1971 and 1973, while Richard Nixon was president and the Vietnam War was on. He became director of the CIA and Ronald Reagan's vice-president. He was eventually elected president in 1989, but the charms of Bill Clinton beat him four years later.And the one that wasn't...
*Joe Kennedy, the fiercely ambitious father of JFK, right, was appointed ambassador to the UK in 1938. He caused an outcry by declaring democracy "finished" and fleeing to the countryside during the Blitz, while other ambassadors and the Royal Family remained in London. He was forced to resign from his post and the controversy thwarted his presidential ambitions.
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