Jon Huntsman: The Potential Republican Presidential Candidate Democrats Most Fear

Jon Huntsman is a pro-civil-union Mormon who just spent nearly two years working for Obama. Could he really be the answer to the GOP's presidential-candidate problem?

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Grant Cornett for TIME

Jon Huntsman

Republican presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman has just proved he can keep 1,100 graduating college kids awake for 17 minutes — and even led them in a popular local cheer about kicking ass. But Obama's lean, understated former ambassador to China is really here to prove he can mount a credible campaign against the man he was working for a week prior. In a brightly lit cinder-block room inside the sports arena where the University of South Carolina has held its commencement, the former Utah governor jokes that the stark setting of our interview — his first since returning to the U.S. — suggests he might be in for some "enhanced interrogation."

But if that's what I'm up to, then torture really doesn't work, because in several sittings and a couple of hours together over a week's time, I don't even come close to getting him to spill such puny secrets as whether he thinks we should be in Afghanistan or Libya ("There will be more to say about that"), in what ways he disagrees with Obama ("I don't want to get into specifics") or, for that matter, where he parts company with his fellow Republicans, including his distant cousin, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney ("It wouldn't be fair to offer an opinion without doing due diligence"). And as for whether or not Huntsman still belongs to the Church of Latter-day Saints, I know less than I did before I asked him. ("I'm a very spiritual person," as opposed to a religious one, he says, "and proud of my Mormon roots." Roots? That makes it sound as if you're not a member anymore. Are you? "That's tough to define," he says. "There are varying degrees. I come from a long line of saloon keepers and proselytizers, and I draw from both sides.")

So careful that he's disinclined to weigh in on any matter on which he hasn't been fully briefed or made up his mind, Huntsman is nonetheless plenty open about wanting to compete for Obama's job. Already he's in primary-season mode, moderating his previously moderate views by praising the Tea Party as "a very legitimate manifestation of people's anger and frustration in where we are today" and junking his support for the regional cap-and-trade carbon-emissions pact he and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger once championed. "It hasn't worked," he says now, "and our economy's in a different place than five years ago." Until it recovers, he adds, "this isn't the moment" to keep trying.

While some Republican hopefuls have failed or are still trying to coax their loved ones onto the campaign bus, Huntsman's wife and their seven children are more than ready for a yearlong road trip that could begin as soon as June. "I would be extremely excited" if he ran, his daughter Liddy, 23, says. "He'd be the ultimate fresh face." ("Thanks, chief," he tells her in his usual soothing sotto voce style.)

Certainly, his party is in the market for one of those; competition was so modest at the first GOP presidential debate of the season that the sole top-tier contender who showed, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, was begging for a rival who could help him keep his skills up. As Huntsman's would-be campaign manager John Weaver tells me, "This is the weakest Republican field since Wendell Willkie won the nomination on the sixth ballot in 1940."

But is the understated 51-year-old Jon Meade Huntsman Jr. really the answer to the Republican Party's personnel problem? He is, after all, a pro-civil-union Mormon who has just finished nearly two years of service for Obama in the land many Americans consider the new evil empire. He is pro-environment — a little too green for many in his party — and hardly anyone knows who he is. Though Huntsman's path to the nomination is a certified long shot, you have to wonder why so many on both the right and left seem to be freaking out at the prospect of his jumping into the race.

Democrats who fear that Huntsman would do well against Obama in next year's general election are busy pelting him with rose petals — take that, you wonderful man! — that they openly hope will disqualify him in the eyes of Republican Party regulars. But it's Huntsman's fellow conservatives who are in a swivet over all the attention he's gotten since arriving home from China on April 30. As governor, the antiabortion, pro-gun Huntsman did all the things Tea Party conservatives say they want, slashing taxes and adding jobs. He did that in part by using his sway with Mormon elders to pave the way for a reform of state liquor laws that made it easier to get a drink.

Yet on the right, he still somehow stands accused both of writing the President the kind of "love letters" most of us refer to as thank-you notes and of showing disloyalty to his country by "plotting" to run against that same President while in a position to undermine him on the world stage. Both what he says and what he doesn't say in our interviews make clear, though, that he really has not been steeping himself in presidential politics. "I'm not even sure I could name all of them," he says of his GOP rivals.

Fortunately for him, much of the country can't either.

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