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Jon Huntsman: The Motocross Mormon

Jon Huntsman: The Motocross Mormon

By Erin McPike and Scott Conroy - April 20, 2011

Four years ago, Mitt Romney had a lot going for him -- money, looks, a famous name, executive experience in both the public and private sector, a record of winning statewide in heavily "blue" Massachusetts, and his white knight performance in saving the 2002 winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

He had a few strikes against him, too, including a reputation as a waffling politician. But one of the most sensitive and elusive aspects of the Romney package was his religious faith. Simply put, Americans have never elected a Mormon as president of the United States -- and some doubt they ever will.

And now, nipping at Romney's heels in his second pursuit of the presidency just one election cycle later is another dashing Mormon with many of the same credentials: Jon Huntsman, who served the historic Mormon mecca of Utah as governor. Huntsman's father is a billionaire, and because Mormons are expected to tithe annually, he is believed to be among the church's biggest benefactors, giving far more to it, for example, than the $45 million in seed money Romney provided his first presidential campaign.

But so far, the Mormon issue doesn't seem to be nagging Huntsman the way it did Romney four years ago. Did Romney's 2008 candidacy itself help allay anti-Mormon prejudice? Is there something different about the way they embrace their faith? Do the two men discuss this issue differently? All of the above?

Romney's team was conflicted throughout most of 2007 about how to address what seemed to be a glaring hurdle -- especially the mistrust of evangelical Christians in Iowa whose support they prized. In December, the candidate offered a sweeping speech on the importance of religious freedom in the United States, but it simply may have come too late to extinguish the curiosity about his religious background.

By contrast, advisers to Huntsman's campaign-in-waiting, Horizon PAC, aren't sweating his faith. And that may be because the candidate himself has been taking religion off the table for years both personally and politically.

The way Huntsman has conducted his own life could wind up benefiting him on the campaign trail this year by blunting the impact of the Mormon mystique for him personally. He enrolled his children in Catholic school and attended the University of Utah rather than the LDS-affiliated Brigham Young University. In a 2010 Forbes interview, he claimed he wasn't overly religious.

More broadly, he set his state on an almost parallel track when he was governor by taking a few steps to divorce it from a purely Mormon identity.

He led successful efforts to relax liquor laws (alcohol is forbidden to church members) and promote tourism, and he brought church leaders to his side when reforming the state's tax structure -- all pieces of an undertaking to modernize the Beehive State and make it more accessible to the average American unfamiliar with or even put off by Mormonism.

Then, several months before resigning the governorship on August 11, 2009, to serve as U.S. ambassador to China, Huntsman came up with an idea: Enter Salt Lake City in the competition to host the 2011 National Governors Association annual meeting.

"It was all Huntsman," a former aide said, adding, "he put the bid together." The aide went on to say that Huntsman pitched the idea locally and gathered support from industries to round out the bid. Salt Lake City has hosted the meeting three other times, but the last time was in 1947.

And so the NGA announced about two weeks after Huntsman resigned: "NGA's nine-governor executive committee selected Utah for its first-class hotel and meeting facilities, as well as the city's overall appeal."

The effort was another component of Huntsman's efforts to increase Utah's recognition nationally and showcase it as a destination for tourism. And as he transitions into a presidential bid, this July's meeting will afford him the opportunity to show off the progress he made to a host of GOP governors whose endorsements he surely will court, as well as the national media. The conference agenda also includes a convenient new breakout session on China and how relations with the country affect the United States, according to a planner in Utah.

Promotional fact sheets for the meeting begin with a list of bullet points to "dispel the myths" about Utah, which is exactly what Huntsman tried to do as governor.

In 2004, he campaigned on changing negative perceptions about the state in order to attract tourism, and upon taking office, he stewarded a legislative effort that brought state money for tourism marketing from $900,000 in 2004 to $10 million the following year. Advertisers marketed the state more heavily to outdoorsy people on the East and West Coasts looking for active vacations; Huntsman himself is an avid motocross enthusiast, which helped in pushing outdoor sporting activities. And from 2006 to 2010, hotel tax revenues shot up 17 percent and the state enjoyed record numbers of visitors for their best ski seasons ever.

"We had never, candidly, had a governor who was as committed to tourism as viable statewide economic development," Nan Anderson, the executive director of the Utah Tourism Industry Coalition, said. She added that his efforts to normalize liquor laws were an added bonus that helped spark more business and noted, "A methodical approach has helped getting our positive assets more known, and the perception of Utahns as peculiar has decreased exponentially."

A trio of people interviewed for this story said one thing they wanted to end was the idea that, "If you go to Utah, you can't get a drink." And so Huntsman's administration went about luring people into the state to show them how much it has changed.

Enter Huntsman the presidential candidate.

He may not be headed to Iowa often to convince evangelical Christians that he is one of them, and GOP operatives in New Hampshire don't expect religion to play a factor in the Granite State, but aides to Huntsman's campaign-in-waiting have indicated that they expect him to be competitive in South Carolina's critical first-in-the-South primary.

Longtime South Carolina Republican operative Richard Quinn -- who was introduced to Huntsman in early 2009 after advising former Arizona Senator John McCain's successful South Carolina primary campaign in 2008 -- said that it was Romney's inability to connect with the state's voters, not his religion, that led to the former Massachusetts governor's disappointing fourth-place finish in the state.

"Being a Mormon had nothing to do with Romney's problems here," Quinn said. "It was being Romney that was his problem."

Quinn said that he expected Huntsman to do well in all areas of the state -- even the heavily conservative Upstate region -- and said that he had spoken to several evangelical activists who had indicated they were open to supporting the former Utah governor, despite his Mormon faith.

Quinn pointed to the victory in the 2010 gubernatorial race of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who converted to Christianity but was raised as a Sikh, as evidence that Huntsman would not be handicapped by his faith.

"Her religious background was unconventional," Quinn said of Haley. "An unconventional religious background does not disqualify you in South Carolina."

One early indication that Huntsman's level of support among Christian conservatives could be stronger than what has widely been expected came when Rob Wasinger -- the campaign manager for then Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback's short-lived 2008 presidential campaign -- announced his support for Huntsman.

"Jon Huntsman's a natural for a lot of social conservatives, and I think he's a natural because he's had a strong leadership role in some of the most pro-life legislation in the country," Wasinger said. He said he didn't think that religion was too problematic for Romney, and needling the differences between the two, he said, "From my point of view, Mitt Romney's biggest challenge was that he had flipped on every major issue that Republicans care about."

Akron University political science professor John Green, an expert on public opinion regarding religion and politics, said that while he has not seen any systematic evidence that attitudes among evangelical GOP primary voters regarding Mormons have changed since 2008, the landscape that both Huntsman and Romney will face could well be quite different in 2012.

"After all, evangelicals know quite a bit more about Mormons because of 2008," Green said. "Also, now we have two Mormons in the race, so it may appear to be more normal."

Green also noted that the apparent differences in the ways that Huntsman and Romney identify with and practice their faiths could have an impact on the collective public psyche.

"It might suggest to people that Mormons are a diverse lot, just like Catholics are a diverse lot," he said. "So there's a capacity for that realization to reduce whatever stigma is associated with being a Mormon per se."

Erin McPike and Scott Conroy are national political reporters for RealClearPolitics. Erin can be reached at emcpike@realclearpolitics.com. Scott can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com

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