GOP allies of Huntsman have already begun laying plans for a quick-start campaign should the former Utah governor decide to enter the ill-defined Republican field.
While Huntsman has no direct involvement in it, a group of operatives that could eventually comprise his strategy team has set up an entity called “Horizon PAC” to serve as a placeholder for his political apparatus.
The PAC will be run by Susie Wiles, a Florida-based Republican strategist who recently managed the campaign of newly-inaugurated Gov. Rick Scott.
Huntsman has avoided publicly discussing the possibility of a bid against the president who appointed him, but he’s sending signals that make clear he’s serious about a run now – not in 2016, when many top officials in both the GOP and the White House assumed he’d run. (See: Huntsman keeps his options open)
Over the holidays, the ex-governor met with Sen. John McCain, whose 2008 presidential run Huntsman backed early on. In a discussion with the senator, who is the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, about a variety of issues, Huntsman made plain that he was eyeing a White House campaign in the near term, according to a source close to the senator. (See: All smiles for Hu Jintao)
A Republican briefed on plans for the political action committee said Huntsman’s final decision on whether to run is expected in June or July. (See: The early-state scramble)
His ambitions have been very much noted in the West Wing. And for public consumption, Obama and his top aides have responded by poking fun at the possibility.
“I couldn’t be happier with the ambassador’s service, and I’m sure he will be very successful in whatever endeavors he chooses in the future,” Obama said of Huntsman at a White House press conference earlier this month with Chinese President Hu Jintao and the ambassador himself. “And I’m sure that him having worked so well with me will be a great asset in any Republican primary.”
At an off-the-record dinner Saturday night, at which Huntsman was also present, White House Chief of Staff William Daley kept up the mockery.
“It’s also good to see Jon Huntsman, our ambassador to China,” Daley said, according to a source in the room. “Or as we call him around the White House: the Manchurian Candidate. I want Jon to know that the president has no hard feelings. In fact, he just did an interview with the Tea Party Express saying how integral he has been to the success of the Obama administration.”
For all their quips, Obama officials are a tad irritated at the barely-veiled presidential moves of their own ambassador in one of the most important countries in the world.
But the appointment of Huntsman was, in the first place, unmistakably political. With senior Obama advisers openly fretting about the prospect of facing off against a telegenic, wealthy, center-right Republican, shipping him off to Beijing was hailed as a savvy play.
No way, the assumption went, could he somehow return stateside and capture his party’s nomination after serving in the Obama administration.
Now, as the 2012 GOP primary slowly begins, that seems to be the central question hanging over a potential Huntsman run.
There’s no Republican circling the race with such powerful strengths and so many potentially disqualifying weakness as the 50-year-old scion of one of Utah’s most prominent Mormon families.
The handsome heir to a massive fortune in chemicals manufacturing, he would likely be able to put his own money into the race. And by virtue of his current post as well as past foreign policy and trade posts in GOP administrations, the Mandarin-speaking Huntsman is the only campaign-tested Republican considering a run for president who has serious foreign policy credentials.
Yet Huntsman also has a history of taking moderate positions on the environment, immigration and gay rights. He’s publicly dismissed the importance of Republicans on Capitol Hill. And the Mormon faith he shares with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney could hamper Huntsman with religious conservatives, much as it did Romney in 2008.
Then there is the glaring problem of his association with a president who’s not only reviled by the GOP base but actually seen by some extreme conservatives as bent on damaging the country.
Huntsman, who recently purchased a home in Washington’s upscale Kalorama neighborhood, hinted at how he might address questions about his connection to Obama, telling a reporter who asked about his 2012 plans at the state dinner: “We’re loyal to our country and our president.”
In other words, he responded to a call to service, not a partisan or ideological appeal. Put in familiar terms, he put country first.
Concerns about his affiliation with Obama haven’t slowed preparations for a potential Huntsman campaign, and in his absence from the domestic scene a team of strategists have assembled to prepare for the eventuality of a run.
Chief among them are John Weaver, the former adviser to McCain; Fred Davis, the California-based ad man; Richard Quinn, one of the most influential consultants in South Carolina politics and Wiles. A longer list of people in Huntsman’s circle was published last week by the Washington Post, which reported that the former governor was leaning toward a run.
Due to the sensitivities surrounding his current position, few of his supporters would discuss the contours of a Huntsman run.
If he does move ahead with a campaign, it seems clear he’d be counting on his record in Utah - which boasts significant accomplishments on tax reform, health care and spending - to overcome doubts about his Republican bona fides. On such fiscal matters, he’s no moderate.
He’ll also have to hope that the current civility craze extends to a significant slice of the Republican primary electorate, which has shown little appetite since 2008 for nominating any candidate viewed as friendly to the Obama administration.
Huntsman would likely appeal to Republicans looking for a solutions-oriented leader who’s more sunny than angry.
As the then-governor put it himself, in a POLITICO interview in 2009: “Whoever emerges as the standard-bearer for the Republican cause in four or eight years will have to first prove that they can be a person who delivers results in the incubator or laboratory of democracy, as opposed to someone engaging in gratuitous rhetoric.”
With a serious team of advisers behind him and significant financial resources at his disposal - plus a made-for-media maverick story of the keyboard-playing, motorcycle-driving, Mormon China-hand trying to move his party away from the fringe - there’s little question that Huntsman would have an opportunity to alter the course of the 2012 campaign.
Whether he could win a Republican primary is another story. He won exactly zero votes in a recent presidential straw poll taken in New Hampshire. Most scientific surveys of the GOP primary don’t include his name on the list of choices.
Even Republicans who are sympathetic to his brand of pragmatic politics acknowledge he’s a far better general election candidate and may be unable to emerge from a primary. At the moment, he seems ill-suited for Republican base.
“They’re not in a sail-trimming mood right now,” said Christian conservative leader Ralph Reed, who heads a group called the Faith & Freedom Coalition. “Anybody out there with a centrist message in the presidential primary process is going to find that that’s not where the activists are.”
But even an unsuccessful Huntsman bid could send ripples through the rest of the campaign.
At first glance, Romney would appear to be the contender with the most to lose from having another clean-cut, business-friendly former governor with a family fortune, an Ivy League degree and a close connection to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in the race.
In a crucial presidential state like New Hampshire, where independents are allowed to vote in Republican primaries, Huntsman could compete with Romney for support from moderate voters and others who care mostly about fiscal issues.
“We would be the logical place he’d play,” said Tom Rath, a longtime New Hampshire Republican and Romney backer. “There’s no Democratic primary so our electorate is going to look a lot different than Iowa.”
But Rath added that Tim Pawlenty, John Thune and Mitch Daniels may also be competing for those voters in the middle and on the center-right who aren’t for Romney. In a field of candidates stocked with more orthodox conservatives, though, Huntsman’s hope would be to take a page out of the McCain playbook and win with a plurality as his rivals on the right divide up the party base.
Another Republican operative close to a 2012 contender downplayed Huntsman’s chances in the race, invoking former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s ill-fated 2008 campaign.
“In the end, the Republican Party wasn’t going to nominate a pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, anti-gun New York City mayor,” said the strategist. “He’s gonna say, ‘I’m running from Washington, DC, as an Obama appointee’? I just don’t see it coming together.”