Huntsman Separates Himself From Obama, GOP Rivals

By Erin McPike - May 31, 2011

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By Erin McPike

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. -- Why would a man who criticized his own political party and accepted a job in the opposing party's administration have the audacity to think he should be elected president?

To read between the lines of Jon Huntsman's modest words, the answer is this: Staying on the sidelines when you think you're the most well-rounded player on the bench would be a ghastly idea.

In interviews and speaking publicly, the former Utah governor eschews red meat in favor of understated eloquence -- not unlike his would-be rival, Mitch Daniels. Winning a Republican primary from that moderate perch would seem a tall order, but to those who think the one-time ambassador to China is an apologist for his most recent boss, President Obama, Huntsman has a cautionary note.

"We have no pro-growth policies," he replied in a lengthy interview with RealClearPolitics when asked what was wrong with Obama's approach to growing the economy and supporting business.

The line was so blunt it jerked several of those present -- including his wife, Mary Kaye -- into brief and startled laughter. (The interview took place in a campaign van as Huntsman's entourage was making its way through the Granite State last Monday for an event here.)

"When was the last time we had a free-trade agreement?" Huntsman asked.

So far, Huntsman has been careful in describing how he has differed with the president, offering instead a vision in broad brushstrokes about how America's future should look. And while he may never eviscerate Obama verbally the way some of his fellow Republicans do, Huntsman does have something he'd like to clear up.

Asked to elaborate on their working relationship -- and if he liked Obama personally -- he replied, "I think he's a good man, and he's tried his best.

"We don't have a personal relationship," he said, explaining that he has only spoken to Obama several times. In other words, although Obama has joked -- shrewdly -- that he and Huntsman are buddies, the recently returned ambassador clarified: "I was asked to do a sensitive job, but it's not like it was based on a personal relationship." Huntsman and his wife calculated that he had only met with the president in person on three occasions.

As a fluent speaker of Mandarin, Huntsman's appointment to one of the most strategically important U.S. diplomatic posts made sense on its merits. But there was also a political component -- it's the worst-kept secret in Washington that Obama's advisers had hoped to eliminate one of his top potential competitors in 2012. On the other side of the ledger, it rounded out Huntsman's resume by giving him much-needed foreign policy experience.

Huntsman acknowledged that he had made "a couple of journeys" in early 2009 -- before being appointed to the overseas post -- to some of the presidential nominating states that come first on the primary calendar, but he insisted that his thoughts on a presidential run didn't become more serious until recently.

"I've had a great career," he said. "I don't need to do this."

He reiterated that he only planned to stay in China for two years. Late last year, he bought a house in Washington.

"Six months ago we were going to come back and go straight into the private sector," he said. "That's why we bought a home in D.C."

The reason for that, he and Mrs. Huntsman agreed, was simple: they wanted to be closer to their two sons, who are in school on the Eastern seaboard. The couple didn't even like missing their football games during his tenure as governor and ambassador. They certainly didn't like being half a world away.

What would be next for the breadwinner was unclear, but there were a few options. He could write a book; he could employ some of what he had picked up in China and become a CEO -- a job, he said, he would "relish"; he could join a few boards and begin philanthropic work (like his father, a billionaire).

"No person running for president would go straight to D.C. That's just ridiculous," he said. "There's no logical strategy."

His biggest cheerleader explained that her husband doesn't do things for political reasons. Then she offered a soliloquy about how inspiring he is, explaining, "When you're positive, rather than tearing someone down, it keeps your own positive energy up." She gushed about his leadership qualities.

"I'm so going to buy you dinner tonight," he said to her in response.

"He's cute, isn't he?" she said, touching his face.

It was lost on no one who watched the duo traipse through New Hampshire a week ago that they don't suffer a likability deficiency. But when it's red-meat Republicanism that's being sold, how is Jon Huntsman going to fare?

Perhaps playing to that segment of the electorate, he said the two living Republicans he most admires are now folk heroes: Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

"I admire the single-minded, intense focus on finding solutions," he said, referring to Ryan's mission to address the debt and spending. He cited Huckabee for connecting to voters and articulating a message in a heartfelt and thoughtful way.

Detailed policy positions are not available yet, but Huntsman has offered a few bold thoughts, going a bit further than some of his rivals who have been at this for a while. He supports Ryan's Medicare plan, which doesn't address Social Security. Some of Huntsman's rivals have been wary of saying too much about the latter entitlement program, with some even questioning openly whether it could be changed.

"I think it has to change. I do," he said. "You cannot extrapolate our current spending levels on current assumptions that underlie Medicare and Social Security and expect to be in a good place for future generations."

He spoke with some nostalgia about medical breakthroughs extending life and suggested that it might be time to raise the retirement age. He also pointed to indexing and means-testing as other ways to change the system.

Both Haley Barbour and Mitch Daniels, both of whom chose not to run, spoke about the need to consider defense cuts; Huntsman is the only serious contender in the GOP race right now who is keeping that message alive. The Utahn also questioned the current military mission in Libya, knocking it as too expensive for the U.S. government at this time.

What's more, he is moving rapidly into the deficit-hawk territory that Mitch Daniels would have occupied in the primary had he run. Huntsman emphasizes the national debt on the stump, and gives some context from his time in China. When Fox News did a 12-part series on the likely Republican presidential contenders in November (including Daniels but not Huntsman), Daniels' answer on what he views as the most pressing foreign policy issue facing the United States is the same one Huntsman cites -- for more obvious reasons.

"Managing the Chinese relationship, probably, for mutual advantage to both countries," Daniels told Bret Baier.

Huntsman's team had viewed the Indiana governor as their biggest competitor on the path to the nomination, and with him out of the way, they are moving rapidly into the Hoosier's space. They even have some of the same problems: Huntsman is seen as a moderate; Daniels took heat for suggesting a social truce. They're both civil. Daniels praised Obama on education reform; Huntsman actually worked for the president.

Hours before Daniels announced he would not run, Huntsman was touring a motorcycle shop in Manchester, N.H. (both men like to ride). Asked which one would win in a motorcycle race, Huntsman said, "Oh, you're talking to someone who does this competitively. I think you should call a race."

It was a telling response. Despite his soft speaking style and all the diplomatic language Huntsman used as he wound his way through this New England state, the word supporters most often use to describe the near-certain candidate is "competitive." Two of his favorite things to mention are that the Pew Research Center named Utah as one of the best-managed states in the country when he was governor and that other reports say it has one of the best business climates in the country.

And that, in part, is why Huntsman thinks he'll be competitive for the nomination.

There wasn't one seminal moment in his career that indicated to him he was qualified to be president, he said, looking back most specifically on his governorship. "It struck me that we had done some interesting and innovative things," he said.

But his last two years in China -- almost a death knell to his political career if you ask certain Republicans -- contributed to his thinking about running.

"I think it's the totality of the experiences we've had that suggest we could be helpful" as president, he said.

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Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ErinMcPike.

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