COLUMBIA, S.C. » Three months before President Barack Obama nominated Jon M. Huntsman Jr. as ambassador to China, Huntsman arrived here to introduce himself to three dozen influential Republicans and talk politics with them over dinner at the Palmetto Club.
Huntsman, then serving his second term as governor of Utah and prospecting for his political future, worried aloud that Republicans were growing out of touch with a generation of Americans. If the party wanted to win national elections again, he argued, Republicans needed to broaden their appeal to young voters, Hispanics and independents.
He will put that argument to the test if he joins the 2012 Republican presidential race.
After spending nearly two years as America’s top diplomat in China, Huntsman returns to the United States next week. He has scheduled visits next month here in South Carolina and in New Hampshire, where the Tea Party and social conservatives hold significant sway and have changed the political landscape.
On paper, given his affiliation with Obama, Huntsman would seem to be facing a tough time in a primary where anti-Obama sentiment runs high. But in a crowded field, with many Republicans signaling dissatisfaction with the candidates, his supporters hope he could get beyond short-term challenges with a long-term pitch of electability.
“The stage is set for an attractive new player who can inspire Republicans,” said Richard Quinn, a Republican who attended the dinner with Huntsman here two years ago and intends to support him if he runs. “By the time we get around to voting next year, the one thing that will pull Republicans together is beating Barack Obama.”
A candidacy by Huntsman would test just how frustrated voters are with the party’s lineup and would determine whether there is room in a Republican primary for a fiscal conservative and social moderate, who would present himself as a strong general election choice.
Huntsman has been coy about his intentions. A group of Republican aides, nearly all of whom are alumni of Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaigns, have been working behind the scenes to promote a potential candidacy. They say they have not coordinated with him, which would be a violation of federal law because he is a government employee who cannot engage in elected politics.
In an interview last week in Beijing, Huntsman told a Salt Lake City television station: “While in China, we serve our country. We don’t do politics.” Asked whether he planned to pursue the Republican presidential nomination, he declared, “I don’t know the answer to that yet.”
Huntsman, 51, is a motorcycle-riding, keyboard-playing, Mandarin-speaking Mormon, who worked in the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George Bush and George W. Bush. His family, which owns the Huntsman Corp., a global chemical company, is one of the wealthiest in Utah, worth more than $1 billion, which has only fueled speculation that he could invest his own money into a campaign.
Other Republican candidates are closely watching Huntsman, particularly Mitt Romney. A simmering rivalry came into full view during the 2008 presidential race when Huntsman became a co-chairman of McCain’s campaign, instead of backing Romney, the former Massachusetts governor. (Jon Huntsman Sr., the family patriarch, supported Romney.)
The strategy for Huntsman, if he decides to run, would likely begin in New Hampshire. His supporters believe he should follow a path similar to that taken by McCain: ignore the Iowa caucuses, where social conservatives have a louder voice, and try to compete aggressively in South Carolina, where Romney has struggled to win over voters.
Huntsman would have several disadvantages, including low name recognition among Republicans. Party activists, in conversations at two Republican county conventions here in South Carolina over the weekend, knew little about him. He also has no established donor base and any campaign would start months behind those of rivals.
But some of the groundwork is being quietly done by operatives — without his consent, they say — who have visited donors and asked influential Republicans to sit patiently until he make his plans known.
“I’m just beating the drum and hoping that he runs this cycle and doesn’t wait,” said Fred Davis, a Republican advertising strategist who met with prospective donors last week in Florida. “I’m trying to find someone who is different, who is going to stand out and register in someone’s heart.”
Huntsman’s resume does stand out, in part because of his strong foreign policy credentials. In addition to serving as the ambassador to China, he was ambassador to Singapore for the first President Bush and a deputy trade ambassador for the second.
He opposes abortion rights and his record as a fiscal conservative is solid. But after winning a second term as governor in 2008, he praised the Obama administration’s economic stimulus program, advocated civil unions for gay couples and supported the cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions, all of which drew favorable attention among moderates but criticism from some strict conservatives.
It is unclear how voters will view his relationship with Obama. If some wonder why Huntsman accepted a position in a Democratic administration, others may ask why he is turning against the man who sent him to China. His challenge was underscored late last week, when a letter from the departing ambassador to the president was disclosed by the Daily Caller, a conservative website. “You are a remarkable leader — and it has been a great honor getting to know you,” Huntsman wrote.
John Weaver, a Republican strategist who is among those urging Huntsman to run, said his experience in China only enhanced his credentials. He has organized the Horizon political action committee, which is promoting Huntsman. “If you’re asked by the president of the United States to serve your country in a foreign policy or national security role and you don’t do it,” Weaver said, “that’s disqualifying.”
Huntsman, who recently bought a house in the upscale Kalorama neighborhood of Washington, is scheduled to return to the United States shortly before his resignation takes effect April 30. The next day, he can start conducting political discussions. A campaign operation, complete with a team of fundraisers, researchers and political strategists, is waiting to offer him guidance.
Interviews with nearly a dozen friends and former colleagues in Utah, disclosed that Huntsman is serious about testing a presidential bid over the next few months. They said they expected him to make a final decision by summer.
“He clearly would like to run at some point,” said former Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah, who has known the Huntsman family for years but is supporting Romney. “But he doesn’t have a natural constituency, so forming a political action committee and spreading money around in the 2012 election could be a very smart thing for a politician who wants to run in 2016.”
For his part, Obama has repeatedly mentioned Huntsman’s ties to him.
In a speech at the Gridiron Dinner last month in Washington, the president said he admired all of the potential Republican candidates, but added, “I’m a little biased towards my dear, dear friend Jon Huntsman.”
“As his good friends in China might say, he is truly the yin to my yang,” Obama said with a smile. “And I’m going to make sure that every primary voter knows it.”