By Susan Page
Just three weeks after he left the job of ambassador to China in the Obama administration, the former governor of Utah is on a five-day swing through New Hampshire, heading from house party to college commencement to gun shop as he weighs a campaign for the Republican nomination to oppose his former boss.
Even as another prospective Republican contender, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, announced Sunday he won't run for president, Huntsman is moving toward the race with the apparent enthusiasm of his wife, Mary Kaye, who was at every stop with him. Daniels' demurral could boost Huntsmans' standing as a potential alternative to GOP front-runner Mitt Romney.
"Politics is a surprising business," Huntsman, 51, says in one of several interviews with USA TODAY between campaign stops this weekend. "People can come in with the right message and capture the zeitgeist of the public and they're off and running. It's catching lightning in a bottle."
He'll need it: At the moment, only one in four Republican voters nationwide has any idea who Huntsman is, according to a Gallup Poll this month in which he had the support of 2%.
When voters do meet him, one of the first things they'll learn is that, until recently, he worked for President Obama.
Would Republicans, fractured on some issues but united in their fierce opposition to Obama, be willing to nominate a challenger who served in his administration for nearly two years?
For some, it could be disqualifying.
"If you're a Republican, you say, 'I kindly defer to somebody else'" if a Democratic president calls with a job offer, says Bob Richard, 63, a former Marine having a beer at VFW Hall 1631 in Concord when Huntsman and his entourage walk in to shake hands and chat. Richard disparages what he calls "RINOs," an acronym that GOP conservatives use against party moderates: "Republicans In Name Only."
"The question is, why would he do it?" demands George Kidd, 73, who came to a meet-and-greet session in Hancock. He scoffs at the explanation Huntsman has just given to the group that crowds into Bobbie Coffin's family room -- that Huntsman felt obliged to serve when a president asked.
"You don't get that sort of call" without reaching out for the job first, Kidd says.
Earlier, Kidd, a retired president of Tiffin University, a small private college in Ohio, had asked Huntsman a blunt question: "Who are you and what have you done?"
"If you want to understand who I am, I am first and foremost a dad who cares about his family," Huntsman responded, looking a bit taken aback.
He mentioned in passing his family business -- left unmentioned is the fact that his father is billionaire industrialist Jon Huntsman Sr. -- and his career in government. "So it's been balancing my career in public and private life all the while trying to raise a responsible family."
The next day, Huntsman recalls the exchange during a drive from his Manchester hotel to a photo opportunity at Riley's Gun Shop in Hooksett.
"When you have somebody stand up and say, 'Who are you? Who are you?' I think that's very refreshing," he says, laughing. "Having come from two years in China, where the thought of walking into somebody's home with media who can write and comment any way they want and no one is going to interfere, and to have citizens just show up randomly and to be able to get in our face and ask about this or that or the other, about anything -- I mean, I wanted to cry" with pride in American democracy.
If that's the sort of back-and-forth he savors, the primary campaign is likely to give him more of it.
Differences with Obama
Huntsman rarely mentions Obama by name, but he has begun to criticize the president's policies, sometimes in unexpected ways.
Most Republicans support the Afghanistan war, for example, but Huntsman says the conflict has gone on too long and involved too many American "boots on the ground" -- a commitment he says is out of synch with the country's budget constraints and core interests. He sees a faster withdrawal than Obama's timetable to have most combat troops out by 2014.
"A drawdown is inevitable, and I think the sooner the better," he says. "I'm hard-pressed to see that on-going is a good use of taxpayers' dollars or, beyond what has been done, vital to our national security interests."
In Libya, he says he wouldn't have intervened to enforce a no-fly zone because the U.S. budget and armed forces have been stretched too thin -- a position that puts him at odds with such Republican leaders as Arizona Sen. John McCain.
The desire to prevent a foreign government from killing its civilians isn't enough, he says: "We could be responding to corners of the world constantly if that were the motivating criteria."
And on China, when asked how his policy would differ from Obama's, he says the United States needs to adopt a "very strong offense" to "infuse shared values in a relationship that from the beginning, for 40 years now, has been based on shared interests." He cites issues such as political pluralism, human rights, press freedom and Internet openness.
On Monday, Huntsman will meet with another former U.S. envoy to China, one who managed to move on to the White House. He and his wife will have lunch with former president George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush at the Bush compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, to discuss their experiences in Beijing -- the two families lived in the same residence there -- and perhaps Huntsman's potential run.
He presents himself as a business-savvy leader who as president would focus on reducing the national debt and creating jobs. He calls the new health care law "top-heavy" and says the government's regulatory burden is too high.
He touts his record as the governor from 2005 to 2009, bragging that during his tenure the non-partisan Pew Center on the States named Utah the "best managed state."
He is considering a presidential campaign, he says, because the nation is at "an inflection point" that will determine its future. Asked to make the case for him as president rather than Obama, he cites their different "world views."
"We have a generational opportunity to balance the books and to get us on a growth trajectory. Both of those on the economic side are probably going to have two very different world views coming at them in terms of solutions," he says. "We also have a generational opportunity to reset our position in the world. I think that, too, is going to require two different world views."
Before having a change to run against Obama, however, he would have to navigate the Republican presidential field.
Huntsman doesn't mention former Massachusetts governor Romney or the other Republican contenders by name, though he calls former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty a friend for the days both led their states. Huntsman describes himself as unexpectedly pulled toward the 2012 contest because of broad dissatisfaction with the current choices.
"Nature abhors a vacuum and so does politics," he says.
Does that reflect Romney's vulnerabilities as a candidate? "I don't know if it is anti-anything or anyone as much as it is a desire for the party to see who might get in, what they might bring with them."
He has a classic long-shot's strategy: Concentrate on New Hampshire, where there are fewer of the evangelical Christians who dominate the opening Iowa caucuses and where more moderate independents can vote in the primary. Then use a victory in the Granite State over the favorite to propel his candidacy through South Carolina, Florida and future contests.
It is the approach McCain used to win the past two contested New Hampshire primaries over George W. Bush in 2000 and Romney in 2008. Huntsman is surrounded by McCain veterans, among them strategist John Weaver.
If he runs, Huntsman says he will take out a personal line of credit of several hundred thousand dollars to finance the early stages of a campaign, but he would rely on fundraising rather than his own resources for the campaign.
"Self-funded candidates don't win," he says, calling support from donors one important test of a candidate's appeal.
Mary Kaye Huntsman says she is ready for the race. (Daniels cited reservations by his family as a reason not to run.)
"He says nobody can tell you to run; nobody can tell you not to run," she says as she watches her husband shake hands at a house party in Keene. "But if it's right here" -- she touches her heart. "And he's got the fire to do it."
The Romney alternative?
Huntsman and Romney are almost eerily similar.
"There's another rich, good-looking Mormon already in the race," says Stuart Rothenberg of the non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report, questioning the opening for Huntsman. Both Huntsman and Romney are telegenic former governors with prominent fathers and personal wealth. They are, in fact, distant cousins.
In some ways, Huntsman seems like Romney's cool younger brother, 13 years his junior.
Huntsman dropped out of high school to play with a rock band, the Wizard. Touring a motorcycle shop in Manchester, he bemoans the lack of time he's had to ride his beloved 1999 Harley-Davidson cross-country.
He slips into Mandarin as he briefly addresses the 150 Chinese exchange students at commencement ceremonies Saturday at Southern New Hampshire University, then smilingly declines to translate to the crowd.
"I said, 'To all my friends from China, I want to offer congratulations,'" he says later. "Your families are not here. You're graduating from a great university. And all I would ask is that you take what you have learned and you apply it productively and helpfully to building and helping the U.S.-China relationship."
Tim Chambliss, a University of Utah political scientist who knows both Romney and Huntsman, says Huntsman can be a more likable figure.
"He's just one of those men who, when he walks into the room, the temperature changes," Chambliss says.
And Romney? "Mitt has a tendency to lecture," he says.
Even so, Chambliss says, Romney is more popular among voters in Mormon-dominated Utah, especially since Huntsman in interviews has seemed to dodge questions about his faith.
"I am a Mormon," Huntsman tells USA TODAY, but he continues to be less direct when asked whether he is active in the religion. "I'm a spiritual person from a diverse family." The Mormon community itself is "diverse," he says.
During a string of New Hampshire's house parties, he faces other questions -- for one thing, about his past support of cap-and-trade legislation that would limit CO2 emissions to address climate change. He has backed away from the idea, now opposed by most Republicans, because he says the economy is too fragile and the problem too global to be addressed in that way at this point.
He supports civil unions for gay and lesbian couples, although he opposes same-sex marriage. And as governor, he backed allowing illegal immigrants who had been brought to the United States as children and graduated from Utah high schools to pay lower, in-state tuition at state colleges.
He draws respectable turnout from New Hampshire voters and a huge entourage of reporters and photographers for his opening campaign tour, which ends today.
At the first stop, in a back room at Jesse's Restaurant in Hanover, he launches preemptively into an explanation about his ties to Obama.
"Let me just say, we've been asked occasionally, 'Well, you served President Obama,'" he says. "I did serve President Obama. I served my president. My president asked me to serve. At a time of war, at a time of economic difficulty, when asked by my president to stand up and serve my country -- when asked, I did."
In an interview, he describes his relationship with Obama as limited, saying the only times they had personal contact was during Obama's visit to China in 2009 and Chinese President Hu Jintau's visit to Washington in January. "It's not like we were burning up the phone lines," he says.
Still, Hari Sevugan, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, notes that Huntsman once called Obama "a remarkable leader" in a letter and accused him of trying to "run away" from his record.
"Jon Huntsman is about to launch a great debate -- with himself," Sevugan says.
Obama has signaled he could have some fun with a Huntsman candidacy.
"As his good friends in China might say, he is truly the yin to my yang," the president told the Gridiron Club at the Washington press group's annual dinner in March. "And I'm going to make sure that every primary voter knows it. If you see me on the streets of Nashua, wearing my parka and waving a sign, give me a honk for Huntsman."