The Rising: Jon Huntsman Jr.
In politics, there is nothing as appealing as the Next Big Thing.
The Next Big Thing is that politician who -- for reasons both tangible and intangible -- is seen as a player on the national stage, someone we all will hear from in the not-too-distant future.
Four years ago, Barack Obama had that aura. Today he is in the midst of preparing to become the 44th president of the United States.
Not every rising star fulfills his or her potential in quite the way Obama has but many of them wind up influencing the debate even if they come up short -- former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards jumps to mind in that realm.
With that in mind, The Fix is launching a new regular feature that we are calling The Rising (with obvious apologies to the Boss). In The Rising, we aim to provide the need-to-know information about the next set of party leaders, presidential candidates and others elected officials who will help shape the political landscape in the next four years or so.
We kick off our newest feature in Utah -- where else? -- with a look at Beehive State Gov. Jon Huntsman.
On paper, Huntsman doesn't seem like anyone worth keeping an eye on. The son of a billionaire businessman and philanthropist, Huntsman served in several positions within the Administrations of George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush before running successfully for governor in ruby-red Utah in 2004 and cruising to reelection last month with 70 percent of the vote.
But, dig only slightly deeper and Huntsman's appeal begins to become apparent. He is an expert on China and speaks Mandarin Chinese fluently. He is far more progressive on the environment than many within his party. He has built a record of economic recovery and growth during his first four years in office at which even Democrats marvel. And, most importantly (and interestingly), he sees himself as a force for bipartisanship in Utah.
"People work with people," said Huntsman during an interview last month with The Fix. "Most Americans are fed up with the idea that partisanship has stood in the way of progress."
As evidence of his across-the-aisle style, Huntsman points out that he appointed Scott Matheson, the Democrat who ran against him in 2004, to head up an independent commission investigating the Crandall Canyon Mine collapse in 2007.
Huntsman is openly critical of the recent Republican leadership, including the campaign run by Arizona Sen. John McCain, who he endorsed early in the primary season. (Huntsman's father was an active supporter of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.)
Of the 2008 McCain campaign, Huntsman said: "The big ideas didn't come forward." He added that "people have to have to something they can vote on, they can digest" and McCain never gave them that information.
Huntsman is even more critical of the Bush Administration which, he suggests, chose narrow partisanship rather than "preeminence" around a few big ideas -- a decision that cost the party control of the White House and both chambers of Congress.
"Right now we are devoid of ideas," said Huntsman. "We don't have the big thing, we don't have the organizing principle."
Asked about the war on terrorism, around which Bush has built his presidency, Huntsman said that while it should be part of our overall national security, it can't be an organizing principle...it's not big enough."
The Administration's singular focus on the war in Iraq, he added, has "completely neglected" other parts of the world -- notably China and India. "Iraq has taken all of the oxygen out of the room," Huntsman said.
For all of the change messaging and outsider appeal, Huntsman still has a number of major obstacles to overcome between now and 2012. (He says he has made no decisions about his future but certainly has the look and feel of a future presidential candidate.)
First and foremost is his Mormon faith, which, as we saw with Romney earlier this year, is a major stumbling block for Republican caucus and primary voters. While most voters were loath to say that a candidate's gender or race made them less likely to support him or her, there was no such hesitation to voicing opposition to a Mormon candidate.
What the 2008 Republican primary proved is that there remains a bloc of base Republican voters -- how large a bloc is up for debate -- that believes Mormonism to be a cult and simply will not support any candidate who adheres to its tenets.
Huntsman's second problem is Romney. By all indications, Romney is planning to run again in 2012 and would start the race better known and better financed than Huntsman. A Romney candidacy would also force Huntsman to answer questions about whether the Republican field was big enough for two Mormons -- especially given the trepidation cited above toward Mormons from some GOP voters. (An interesting side story: There is a definite rivalry between Huntsman and Romney that will be fascinating to watch play out over the coming few years.)
The third major issue facing Huntsman is his lack of a political team. He said he cut his own ads for his gubernatorial campaigns and isn't particularly close to any national consultants. Mock D.C.-based consultants if you like but it pays to have people around you who have done it before and know what it takes.
All in all, Huntsman is far more than meets the eye. He's well worth watching over the next few years as he positions himself for a place on the national stage in 2012.
December 9, 2008; 6:07 AM ET
Categories: The Rising
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