He’s been called Ambassador, Governor and CEO. In New Hampshire, though, a common greeting for Republican Jon Huntsman Jr. is “Who?”
As he moves toward a possible run for the Republican presidential nomination, the former Utah governor who served as President Barack Obama’s envoy to China has some introducing -- and explaining -- to do.
“Labels and tags are going to be thrown around,” he told two dozen voters gathered at a wood-paneled steakhouse in Hanover, New Hampshire, last night. “In some cases you have to look beneath the veneer.”
A White House bid by Huntsman, 51, will test whether a Republican with a record of bucking party orthodoxy can thrive at a time when his party draws much of its energy from Tea Party supporters who want to roll back virtually every aspect of Obama’s agenda.
Huntsman’s maiden political foray into New Hampshire -- a five-day swing that started yesterday and is packed with meetings with Republican activists, gun-store photo opportunities and a commencement address at Southern New Hampshire University -- offers him his first chance to shape how voters view his record. Recent polling of Republican-leaning New Hampshire voters shows that more than 70 percent couldn’t identify him in the state that conducts the nation’s first presidential primary.
“Nobody knows who he is,” said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. “He’s largely unknown outside of Utah.”
As he met with several dozen voters gathered in the banquet room of the restaurant in Hanover, Huntsman described himself as being, at this point in the campaign, the “quintessential margin-of-error potential candidate.”
Discussing issues, he said the country is at a serious “inflection point” in grappling with the federal debt that will determine the future of America’s economy, currency and competitiveness.
“We either choose to have a lost decade,” he said, “or we can simply get our act together and launch an industrial revolution in this country.”
Fergus Cullen, former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, said Huntsman has potential appeal to more moderate voters, since many of the more prominent Republican presidential prospects are focusing on the party’s fiscally and socially conservative wings.
“Almost every candidate is spending all of their time campaigning to the same Tea Party activists,” Cullen said in an interview. “I think Governor Huntsman will find a receptive audience among the other 80 percent that none of the candidates have been talking to yet.”
As governor, Huntsman angered some Republican activists by expressing support for civil unions for same-sex couples, comprehensive immigration legislation, and a cap-and-trade system to combat carbon emissions, a position he has since backed away from. In 2009, he suggested that the economic stimulus package Democrats enacted was too small, an argument also made by fiscally liberal economists including Paul Krugman. And he gave up the governorship less than a year into his second term to be dispatched to Beijing by Obama.
Huntsman described himself as a “pragmatic problem-solver,” as he continued his New Hampshire visit today.
His record and resume present obstacles for him, rather than opportunities, say some Republicans.
Ovide Lamontagne, a New Hampshire Republican activist who is scheduled to meet Huntsman May 22, said he knows little of him. What he has heard, though, gives him pause.
“We’re going to need a nominee who’s willing to take it to the president on all issues,” Lamontagne said. “If Huntsman feels like he can’t really challenge him on China policy, then that takes an argument away from him that other candidates would have.”
Huntsman was quick to explain his decision to take the ambassador’s job last night.
“At a time of war, at a time of economic difficulties, I’m the kind of person when asked by my president to stand up and serve my country, I do it,” he said.
Huntsman today questioned Obama’s decision to intervene in Libya, saying future conflicts should be weighed based on their financial cost to the country.
“With all of our deployments and all of our engagements abroad, we need to ask a fundamental question: Can we afford to do this?” Huntsman told reporters in the living room of a supporter in Hancock, New Hampshire.
Concern about Huntsman’s service in the Obama administration lingered for some voters. “He has to explain it better,” Jim Musarra, an investment manager in Hancock, said after hearting Huntsman speak.
Supporters stress Huntsman’s record of fiscal management in Utah, where he was first elected governor in 2004. They also point to his work as a top executive for his family’s global plastics and chemical company, Salt Lake City-based Huntsman Corp. and chief executive officer of Huntsman Family Holdings Company. Huntsman Corp. had 2010 revenues of nearly $9.3 billion, according to company filings, and 12,000 employees, according to the company’s website.
His backers also highlight the personal appeal of a motorcycling, Mandarin-speaking father of seven who once played keyboard in a rock band.
Still, noted Fred Davis, a Los-Angeles-based Republican advertising strategist who has been meeting with prospective Huntsman donors, “the path to victory” for a Huntsman campaign “is not a typical one.”
Huntsman is likely to focus his efforts on New Hampshire, a state where independents can vote in the primary, and leave the Iowa caucus fight to candidates who would appeal more to that state’s large base of evangelical voters. Such potential contenders include U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.
He would base his campaign in Orlando, Florida, according to aides. That is the hometown of his wife, Mary Kaye, and Florida is an early primary state with a more diverse base of Republican voters.
Aides started quietly working on a potential Huntsman presidential run out of a Washington hotel months before his resignation as ambassador took effect April 30. Since his return to the U.S., he has been wooing possible donors, supporters and aides across the country.
Senator Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican who met with Huntsman on May 17, called him one of the party’s half-dozen prospective candidates who “have a shot” at the nomination.
His biggest challenge in the emerging Republican race is likely to come from Mitt Romney, 64. Like Huntsman, Romney is a former governor, a former CEO and the son of a prominent Mormon family. And, like Huntsman, one of his political priorities is to disassociate himself from Obama -- in Romney’s case a health-care measure he signed into law as Massachusetts’ governor that is similar to the nationwide measure the president pushed through Congress last year.
Huntsman is “a tall, handsome Mormon businessman with an Obama problem,” said Smith, the New Hampshire pollster. “He’s going to have a difficult time taking votes from Romney who already is well-known, well-liked and is filling that space right now.”