The internet website Politico has dubbed it the “Mormon primary” – the possibility of two articulate, intelligent, conservative-to-moderate former governors, who also are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon), will be slugging it out along with other contenders for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.
It is an intriguing possibility, one that contrary to conventional wisdom may actually be a welcomed development by the presumptive front-runner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the first serious Mormon candidate since his father, former Michigan Governor George Romney, ran in 1968.
The possible entry of former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr., who resigned his seat a few months after winning re-election with 78 percent of the vote to become U.S. Ambassador to China, is causing GOP aspirants, as well as the incumbent, to redo their political calculations.
Why now? Why didn’t he wait until 2016? What has he seen or figured out that others haven’t? These questions reflect the tremendous respect Huntsman commands with political cognoscenti across the spectrum.
The 16th governor of Utah has more going for him than just an impressive resume. He has a certain charisma that flows not just from his obvious intelligence and his personal charm. He has that “noblisse oblige,” much as John, Robert, and Ted Kennedy did, that sense of obligation and duty to give a real return on the gifts they have been blessed with and the fortunate circumstances of their birth. (His father, Jon Sr., chairman of the worldwide chemical production plants, is one of the nation’s leading philanthropists.)
It’s the biblical parable of the talents: To whom God has given much, much is expected.
So far, Huntsman has acquitted himself well. His tenure as Utah’s governor at the time was praised as the best in the nation by the Pew Center for Government, and the conservative Cato Institute rated it as one of the nation’s five best. A fiscal conservative, he put in place practices that have insulated Utah from the economic vagaries that bedevil most other states.
His reputation for thoughtful analysis and well considered moves, though, is what intrigues most observers. Those who know him say he is not leaving a position he always longed for, the Ambassadorship to China (which he first sought when Bill Clinton was president) on a lark. These folks suspect there has been polling that tells him he can overcome the conservative, fundamentalist Protestant bias against Mormonism and his moderate social views, such as supporting same-sex unions.
Like Romney, he has a solid background in business, having held positions in his father’s business and Huntsman Foundation that operates the Huntsman Cancer Institute, among other charitable endeavors, in conjunction with the University of Utah Hospital. (Full disclosure: This writer is the beneficiary of exceptionally fine treatment for a rare form of late Stage IV carcinoid neuroendocrine cancer several years ago at the Institute).
The other advantage Huntsman and Romney enjoy is an ability to self-contribute to their campaigns. In a crowded primary that can be an even bigger difference than normal.
Romney is given the front-runner status because of his personal fortune and his ability to work corporate America. Evidence in the form of generous contributions to other candidates and campaigns also attests to his early lead in the money race.
But Huntsman’s father is a billionaire, the son is a millionaire with access to the family fortune, and one suspects there already has been some quiet but cost-effective money expended, a preliminary strategic plan drawn up, tasks assigned, key troops retained and dispatched, and the Long March of what White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley deliberately called “the Manchurian Candidate” to the White House has begun.
Only time will tell whether brilliance, organization and money can overcome the religious (especially Southern Baptist) suspicions that Mormonism is not Christian and that neither of the Mormon candidates is conservative enough to capture the GOP base.
Romney will be dogged by his sponsorship of Massachusetts’ Health Care Reform legislation that resembles closely the Obama bill and his flip-flop on the abortion issue. Huntsman will be dogged by his daring to work for a Democratic President as an ambassador, as well as his support for same-sex civil unions (although polls show a vast majority of Americans supports civil unions, but split on gay marriage).
One wild card that could make a big difference and is part of the calculus of both Mormon candidates: all GOP primaries and caucuses will award convention delegates in 2012 based on proportional voting. There’ll be no winner-takes-all primaries.
If either candidate emerges with the nomination, he will provide formidable challenge to the incumbent. It will be fascinating to watch.Share on Facebook