Will Huntsman’s Mormon Mojo Work on the National Stage?

Tuesday was announcement day for Jon Huntsman, Jr., the second Mormon former governor to join the field of Republican 2012 presidential contenders. His campaign team had chosen a classic location very much in the key of Ronald Reagan: Liberty State Park, New Jersey, where the candidate set up his podium against the backdrop of the Hudson and the Statue. (Even though you’d never know it from television close shots that entirely screened out Lady Liberty.) The crowd was small—about 100 supporters. The skies were grey. The mood was low key. And the candidate seemed mildly astonished by his own lines, though it was clear that he’d been practicing them. “I’m running for President of the United States. And my kids can’t believe I just said that,” Huntsman quipped, trying to sound unrehearsed. He’d use the same line again a few hours later at a campaign event in New Hampshire.

In the hours since Huntsman’s much-anticipated announcement, he’s been charged by the hard right and showered with false praise from Democrats. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid—whose home state of Nevada hosts an important early primary—even announced that he’d strongly prefer Huntsman over his Mormon rival Mitt Romney, an endorsement that the Romney campaign should be able to get some mileage from. Said Reid of Romney, “Here’s a man who doesn’t know who he is . . . If  someone doesn’t know who they are, they shouldn’t be president of the United States.” Never mind that Huntsman’s record also has its share of flip-flops and identity crises: he was for cap-and-trade and mandatory health coverage before he was against them, and just a few weeks ago he had to be prodded three times by a reporter before prevaricating on the question of whether or not he was actually Mormon.   

The media too has generated no shortage of breathless but virtually news-less profiles about candidate Huntsman. A refreshingly sober and penetrating take comes from the New York Times’ Matt Bai, who observes that Huntsman has already encountered trouble on the campaign trail connecting with voters, leaving them “disappointed” by his “lack of any evident vision.”

The perception that Huntsman lacks a clear vision is not helped along by videos launched by the campaign to introduce the candidate, nor by his washed-out looking website. Go to campaign headquarters at Jon2012.com (which, by the way, doesn’t come up when you Google “Hunstman 2012” or “Huntsman for President”—ouch). The first thing you see is a long shot of a helmeted man riding motocross across the red sands of Monument Valley in southern Utah. And a single word: “Finally.”

Really?

Still, despite some less than convincing first campaign steps, the consensus take on Huntsman seems to be that he’s a decent man with killer instincts who just might be able to play his cards right and clinch the nomination. But perhaps it’s worth observing that the last time Jon Huntsman ran for office, he did so in the state of Utah. He ran as a Mormon Republican in an astoundingly homogenous Mormon Republican state. Moreover, he ran bearing a family name with massively positive associations for Utahns: his father, Jon Huntsman, Sr., is not only a global industrialist and high-ranking leader in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but also a celebrated billionaire philanthropist whose many named gifts to the people of Utah have included a world-class cancer research institute. In Utah, Jon Huntsman, Jr., benefitted tremendously from the family name. And as governor, he implemented a pragmatic, pro-business agenda in a Mormon culture that (despite its reputation as the reddest of the red—thank you, Cleon Skousen and Glenn Beck) tends to be pragmatic and pro-business on just about everything except gay marriage.

But national politics presents a vastly different landscape for candidate Huntsman this time around. And none of the cultural capital that he counted on in Utah—where Mormon folks feel great about voting for the scion of an elite and widely-recognized Mormon family—will work the same kind of magic for him now.

What remains to be seen is how well Jon Huntsman, Jr., plugs away at the day-to-day business of presidential politics and whether he manages to communicate some kind of “vision” that doesn’t rely on the familiarity and homogeneity he capitalized on in Utah. It could be a very interesting six months. More interesting, let’s hope, than the event that kicked it off.

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