By Jacob Weisberg
If you're looking for the most conservative region in America, upcountry South Carolina would be a strong contender. Greenville, the area's biggest city, is home base to Senator Jim DeMint, who argues that unmarried women who live with their boyfriends shouldn't be allowed to teach in public schools. Though John McCain won the 2008 South Carolina primary, this part of the state went to Mike Huckabee, moral crusader and Southern Baptist pastor. The drive from Greenville to the hamlet of Greer takes you past Bob Jones University, a school that banned interracial dating until the twenty-first century.
The political milieu is evident this sticky July evening at Mutt's BBQ, where around 100 conservative activists and assorted curiosity seekers have come for a gander at Jon Huntsman. Before tonight's event starts, they join in a religious invocation, the Pledge of Allegiance, the National Anthem, and an anti-statist poem known as the Republican Creed. Henry McMaster, the state's silver-haired former attorney general, then makes the political tenor of the room explicit when he rises to introduce Jon Huntsman in his thick-as-gravy drawl. "Some of you folks may remembah that I made a pledge that I looked forward to the day Democrats in South Carolina were so rare we'd have to start huntin' em with dawgs," McMaster intones. "It's come true! You cay-ant find any!"
There is, however, at least one moderate Republican present: the smooth, cosmopolitan former Utah governor, who not only is on record as a supporter of gay civil unions but also served under Barack Obama as ambassador to China until a few months ago. Surveying the motley crowd with an ironic expression, he begins, "All I can tell you is that I never thought I would be making an appearance at Mutt's BBQ."
The incongruity level rises as Huntsman makes his way around the dining room to shake hands. One of the state's Tea Party leaders, Chris Lawton, asks what he knows about China's setting up "secret free-trade zones" in the American West. Huntsman politely says he hasn't heard anything about that and moves along. When an older gentleman in a veteran's hat adorned with flag pins presses some religious literature into his hand, Huntsman thanks him, slips the pamphlet in the pocket of his crisp white shirt, and keeps going.
But when Huntsman speaks, he doesn't act like he's pinned down behind enemy lines or tailor his explanation of why he's running to the audience. He says he's running on his record as a "conservative problem-solver" in Utah and on his grasp of America's economic challenges. "The future of the United States is not going to be determined in the fields of Afghanistan," he says. "The future of the United States will be determined based upon how prepared we are to meet the twenty-first-century competitiveness challenge. That war is going to be waged economically, across the Pacific Ocean."
I first met Huntsman a few weeks earlier at a lunch in Manhattan, where he shared the stage with Henry Kissinger to talk about China. The setting, up high in the Reuters Building, on Times Square, could hardly have been more different from the $8.99 buffet at Mutt's. There, Huntsman was flanked at the head table by Diane Sawyer and Tina Brown; joining them was Lloyd Blankfein, the chairman and C.E.O. of Goldman Sachs. Although Huntsman was too polite to express his disagreement with Kissinger's view that public criticism of China from the United States is always counterproductive, he addressed the elite crowd in New York in basically the same way he would speak to the folks at Mutt's--as adults, capable of understanding and responding to the nation's economic predicament.
This directness and level of comfort around all kinds of people may be born of Huntsman's diplomatic experience or his years knocking on doors as a Mormon missionary. His left eyebrow is pitched slightly lower than the other, and the eye below it has a slight squint. This gives him a perpetual expression of thoughtful engagement, the look of someone listening intently to what others are saying. Which--unlike most other presidential candidates I've observed over the years--he gives every indication of actually doing.
It is only by ignoring a series of conventional political assumptions that Jon Huntsman finds himself on the primary trail here in South Carolina. One is that there's no demand for Huntsman's brand of moderation in today's GOP--a view supported by what Huntsman calls his "margin of error" status in the polling to date. Another assumption is that a mannerly, civil campaign can't succeed. Huntsman has rarely criticized President Obama or his Republican opponents directly, though he does pepper his remarks with occasional digs at Mitt Romney, the Republican front-runner. During Huntsman's time as governor, Utah led the country in job creation, he repeatedly notes. "Contrast that with other states like, say, Massachusetts, that I'll just pull out randomly," he says. "Not first but forty-seventh."
Yet another assumption is that a presidential campaign has to be a grueling ordeal for the candidate and his family. No one seems to have told the Huntsmans about that--so far they're having a fine time on the campaign trail. Jon and his wife, Mary Kaye, are a strikingly attractive couple. For this morning's photo-op, they're receiving the endorsement of the late governor Carroll Campbell's family. She is wearing a short-sleeved Carolina Herrera dress that picks up the piercing blue of her eyes. With his tanned face and salt-and-pepper hair, he looks so good in checked shirts and denim jackets that The Wall Street Journal recently compared the launch of his campaign to a Ralph Lauren product rollout.
Two of their seven children are with them on this visit--their oldest, Mary Anne, 26, who is a concert pianist, and Gracie, twelve, the second-youngest, whom they adopted from China. Two other daughters are working at campaign headquarters in Orlando, Florida (where Mary Kaye grew up). Two sons are training to be naval officers. Their youngest daughter, a five-year-old adopted from an orphanage in India, is at home in Washington, D.C. This telegenic, multicultural family may be the candidate's biggest asset as he tries to capture his party's attention. The most trafficked parts of the campaign Web site are daily videos from the road, short segments of family interaction, often without any narration.
The enterprise has the feeling of a family road trip, a continuation of the adventure that began in 2009, when they relocated from Salt Lake City to Beijing. When Huntsman talks about his two big decisions--moving to China and running for president--he falls instinctively into the first person plural. "As for where our mind was in '09, it certainly wasn't apparent that we would be moving into presidential politics," he tells me. "When we make decisions, we sit down together."
One doesn't cover this campaign so much as join it. Flying back to Washington with them later that day (they are in coach, carrying their own bags) provides a glimpse of the family dynamic. While Mary Kaye helps Gracie find something to feed her voracious appetite for reading at Hudson News, Jon browses Discover and Foreign Affairs. The superfit Mary Anne looks for something healthy to eat at the Greenville-Spartanburg airport, and talks about her current repertoire of Chopin, Liszt, and Rachmaninoff and how she's been invited to solo next spring with the Beijing Symphony Orchestra.
You wonder: Why would these nice, mentally healthy people want to spend the next year or more traipsing through the fever swamps of American politics? Huntsman's explanation is the message of his presidential campaign: America is off course. He argues that we are passing on an unsustainable level of debt to our children, that we need to restore America's manufacturing base through a new "industrial revolution" and reorient our foreign policy around competing economically with Asia. To the first challenge, Huntsman brings his experience as a fiscally responsible governor of Utah; to the second, his years working in his family's chemical business; and to the third, his career representing America's interests in the Pacific.
As you listen to Huntsman's blunt assessment of the country's prospects, it's hard not to notice the commonalities with the man he would challenge in 2012--the hazard Obama hoped to forestall by sending him to Beijing. There is, to begin with, the physical resemblance. Huntsman is slender, athletic, and stylish, with a winning smile. Huntsman is 51, Obama is 50, and both have an unusual reserve, a cool unflappability. More important is a shared fundamental outlook: substantive, patient, with a preference for compromise over confrontation, and a pragmatic rather than ideological approach to politics.
When we chat at the airport, Mary Kaye tells me about the first time her husband and Obama met, in a holding room at Coretta Scott King's funeral in 2006. She glimpsed some kind of spark, a connection between the two men, as if they knew that they would figure jointly in some future history.
The next day, in Washington, I visit the Huntsmans at their house in Kalorama. Given that they had bought it when they were still in China and moved in only two months ago, it's not surprising that it looks a bit like an ambassador's residence, with a series of reception rooms and some large canvases depicting migrant Chinese workers that Huntsman bought to decorate the American Embassy in Beijing. The governor paces on the patio out back while talking on the phone. Mary Anne, in jogging shorts, is headed out to pick up lunch. She falls into the conversation I am having with her mother about the family's approach to religion. Mary Kaye has been telling me that both Episcopalianism, the denomination in which she was raised, and her husband's Mormon heritage are important to them. "I draw from both," Mary Kaye says. "I think my children have drawn from both. We are a family that combines two, and it works for us."
I ask her daughter Mary Anne how she might identify her religion on a census form. "Mormon and Christian," she says. "Every person is different in the way they feel spiritually." Her mother adds that spirituality, which the family strongly feels, is more important than the tenets of a particular faith.
People tend to see Mormonism as a binary, you-are-or-you-aren't question, but Jon Huntsman is something more like a Reform Jew, who honors the spirit rather than the letter of his faith. He describes his family on his father's side as "saloon keepers and rabble rousers," and his mother's side as "ministers and proselytizers." The Huntsman side ran a hotel in Fillmore, Utah's first capital, where they arrived with the wagon trains in the 1850s. They were mostly what Utahans call "Jack Mormons"--people with positive feelings about the Latter-Day Saints church who don't follow all of its strictures. "We blend a couple of different cultures in this family," he says.
You'd never hear a phrase like that from Romney, who has raised his sons as Mormons and sent them on missions. Nor would you see Tagg, Matt, Josh, Ben, or Craig Romney in a hotel bar, sipping a glass of wine, as you might see one of Huntsman's adult children. The difference in attitudes between the two Mormon candidates is encapsulated in the football rivalry between Brigham Young, where Romney went to college, and the University of Utah, where Huntsman went (before transferring to the University of Pennsylvania). BYU is an institution grounded in Mormon theocracy. The University of Utah is a state school that happens to have a lot of LDS students.
This difference may be what fuels the tension between the two candidates--a tension exacerbated by Huntsman's endorsement of McCain over Romney in 2008. It's nothing personal, Huntsman says; he and Romney barely know each other. "But number one is number one and 47 is 47," he says, referring back to their respective states' job-creation stats. "Some people run from their record," he pointed out in another dig. "I am running on my record."
Another misconception about Huntsman is that he was born rich. Though his father, Jon Huntsman, Sr., has made--and given away--billions of dollars, the money didn't start rolling in until Jon, Jr., was in his mid teens, when his father sold the company that developed the clamshell Styrofoam containers used for Big Macs for $8 million. In earlier years, the family lived in San Diego and parts of Los Angeles, including North Hollywood, where Jon, Sr., ran an egg-distribution business. Only later did he build the largest company in Utah. Unlike Romney, candidate Huntsman can't fall back on his own cash. Having given around $2 million in "seed money" to his own campaign, he says he can't afford to contribute more.
The senior Huntsmans have been married for 52 years, and Jon is the oldest of nine siblings. The family has not gone without its share of troubles. One of his brothers was kidnapped and held for ransom some years ago, before being rescued in an FBI raid. A sister, Kathleen, struggled with addiction her whole life and died last year at the age of 44, leaving behind seven of her own children under the age of 20. Kathleen was declared brain-dead after an overdose. With no hope for her recovery, the family gathered around her bedside and made the painful decision to remove life support.
Jon's childhood, though, seems to have been relatively carefree. His passion as a teenager was a "progressive rock" band called Wizard, which he formed with school friends. A keyboardist, Huntsman idolized Rick Wakeman of Yes and Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake, & Palmer. Howard Sharp, the drummer in Wizard, has remained a close friend. He recalls that one of Huntsman's favorite artists was the avant-garde composer Captain Beefheart. "It's about the worst music in the world," Sharp remembers. "I tried to listen to it; I really tried. I just couldn't do it."
Sharp, who is now a doctor in Salt Lake City, says Huntsman was a practical joker who loved to douse an unsuspecting bandmate with a bucket of water or smoke a cigar in the office of someone who couldn't stand the smell. There was, Sharp says, no malice in Huntsman--then or now. This was the 1970s, and Jimmy Pitman, an L.A. producer who had played in the psychedelic band Strawberry Alarm Clock (their one hit: "Incense and Peppermints"), thought Wizard could make it big. Thus encouraged, Huntsman dropped out of high school a few credits shy of graduation. The band recorded an album, but according to Sharp it never got pressed on vinyl, and out-of-town gigs took them no farther than St. George, Utah. Before long, two band members moved to L.A. to pursue professional careers. Sharp and Huntsman decided to seek adventure as Mormon missionaries.
Taiwan, where Huntsman was sent, was considered a hardship post. He lived in what he describes as "cockroach-infested dives," rising at dawn to memorize Chinese characters, teach English, and proselytize door-to-door. He did bring in a few converts, he says, but the bigger effect was on him. "You develop your core. You develop your strengths. You get to see your own country, your own world, a little differently."
The mission left Huntsman fascinated by American power abroad. "I got to Taiwan and wondered why people hated Americans," he says, "why we were yelled at and spat upon.Nobody stopped to mention that America had just withdrawn diplomatic relations with Taiwan. It left an indelible impression. For the first time you could see the power of the U.S. at work overseas. It left me hungry to learn all I could." He came back speaking both Mandarin and the Taiwanese dialect of Hokkien, to which he has since added a passable Cantonese.
He met Mary Kaye, she tells me in a separate conversation, when she was fourteen and they spotted each other across a courtyard at Highland High School in Salt Lake City. They worked part-time together in a Levi's store and the Marie Callender's pie shop but didn't date until years later. When Jon came back from Taiwan, she was the first person he wanted to see. When he went to work in the Reagan White House on the advance team and she had a summer job in Washington, they became a couple and married soon thereafter.
Most of his subsequent career has involved Asia, either at Huntsman Industries or in public service. George H.W. Bush named him ambassador to Singapore at the unprecedented age of 32. In 2004, he entered a crowded Republican primary field and emerged as governor of Utah.
In office, he took progressive stands on immigration and the environment, signing on to a Western-states agreement to reduce carbon emissions. His big emphasis was on economic growth and job creation. Cutting the state income tax from 7 to 5 percent helped fuel business investment that by 2007 brought Utah's jobless rate down to 2.3 percent--the lowest in its history. The resulting bonanza in revenue allowed the state not only to avoid spending cuts but to make investments, such as raising pay to attract better teachers. The kind of intelligent long-term planning that the Pew Center for the States cited in listing Utah as one of the three most well-managed states in the country helped boost Huntsman's approval rating above 90 percent. Reforming antediluvian liquor laws and using his state's natural wonders as a backdrop for his motorcycle rides didn't hurt either. In 2008, he was reelected by a wide margin.
Huntsman has yet to put out any detailed position papers for his presidential run but offers a series of ideas that draw on his experience as governor. He would lower corporate taxes and reduce regulation to encourage business investment. He favors Paul Ryan's draconian budget-cutting plan as a starting point for discussions but doesn't rule out new revenues. "Everything has to be on the table," he says. After reasserting fiscal discipline, Huntsman would invest in energy infrastructure, pushing a shift from gasoline to cheaper, cleaner, domestically produced natural gas. He would also slash the defense budget by reducing American military commitments abroad, drawing down U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan more rapidly than Obama has proposed and disengaging from Libya.
In 2009, Huntsman was by one reckoning the most popular politician in America, but entirely out of sync with his own party, which was living through its Tea Party takeover. In a series of interviews, he called the GOP "devoid of ideas," describing it as "a very narrow party of angry people."
Instead of staying to do battle with them, he accepted Obama's appointment to China. There, he says, "I erred on the side of outspokenness, realizing full well that it would carry with it some pain--but also realizing that it was the United States laying down a marker." In his final months there, he became something of a dissident himself. Huntsman "accidentally" walked into a small, Arab Spring--inspired public protest in front of a McDonald's in Beijing. He invited China's most famous blogger, Han Han, a passionate race-car driver, to ride Harleys with him in Shanghai. The government prevented Han Han from doing so.
In the short term, Huntsman says, Kissinger's view that public confrontation with China will prove counterproductive is probably accurate because the Chinese can't respond to external demands without losing face. "They can, however, take these issues under advisement over the longer term and begin to show some flexibility," he says. He thinks liberalization pressures are bound to mount in coming years, as social-networking spreads and economic growth inevitably slows.
A few weeks into the race, Huntsman looks like a protest candidate--less a figure of the current Republican Zeitgeist than a canny challenger to his party's orthodoxy. But his lack of traction thus far doesn't feel exactly like failure. Running from behind brings a freedom to speak one's mind, which can affect the political conversation for the better. Like Eugene McCarthy in 1968, Bruce Babbitt in 1988, and John McCain in 2000, Huntsman seems already to have become a media darling--a thinking person's candidate whose candor shines a light on the evasions of his rivals, even if it fails to change the outcome of the race. If he performs credibly, Huntsman stands to emerge better known, with his national reputation enhanced, and--should Obama be reelected--well positioned to run in 2016.
The resemblance to McCain's authentic, accessible run in 2000 (as opposed to McCain's cranky, conventional one in 2008) is not a coincidence. John Weaver, Huntsman's chief strategist, was also McCain's in 2000 and was partly responsible for its freewheeling tone. Weaver's game plan this time is to ignore the base-dominated Iowa caucuses and focus instead on the early primary states of New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida. Weaver has sought help from the same local consultants who managed McCain's efforts in New Hampshire and South Carolina. Republicans have a long history of forming consensus around winners. If Romney stumbles, Huntsman could emerge as an electable alternative.
Huntsman seems to be comfortable with the long odds. He is running to win, of course, but also to make a point about where America is headed if we don't make some fundamental changes--a condition of national decline that troubled him while he was serving in Beijing. "With a weak and rotting core, you don't have much of a foreign policy," he tells me. "You're discounted at the negotiating table, economically and militarily. So when people ask what's the best course of action for the U.S.--China relationship, I can give you ten academic responses. But the reality is we need to rebuild our core."