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

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Duty Calls Again
There's no serious debate about why Obama picked Huntsman for the China job: First, Huntsman knows an awful lot about the country. And because the President's advisers saw the then governor of Utah as a potential future rival, Obama could score points as a uniter by appointing a Republican while also relocating his competition to the other side of the planet. At least, that's how it was supposed to work. One sign of Team Obama's discomfort over his early return is that the President's top campaign adviser, David Axelrod, has gone out of his way to emphasize how helpful to Obama Huntsman has been. And he warns that it'll be mighty tricky for Huntsman to pivot from working with the President to running against him.

So why did the wildly popular governor — Huntsman had an 80% approval rating in his deeply conservative home state when he left it halfway through his second term — agree to take the China job, knowing that part of Obama's motivation in choosing him was to get him out of the way? And having done so, why did he return home to run anyway? To the first question, Huntsman says it was his sense of duty to country that made the decision so straightforward; he had worked for Ronald Reagan soon after college, and as George H.W. Bush's man in Singapore, he had been the youngest U.S. ambassador anywhere in a century. After a stint in his family business during the Clinton years, he had returned to Washington and served under George W. Bush as Deputy U.S. Trade Representative. When the President — any President — calls, he says, you answer.

But his father, a billionaire businessman and philanthropist, suggests in a phone interview that there is another reason as well. "His dream was to become ambassador to China," he tells me, because he's always been fascinated by and drawn to the culture. So it was certainly no surprise to anyone in his family that he took the job, even though it did seem at the time that he was taking himself out of the running for the next presidential contest. A fluent speaker of both Mandarin and Taiwanese Hokkien, Huntsman had spent two years in Taiwan as a Mormon missionary and had done business all over Asia for the Huntsman Corp. He and his wife adopted their 11-year-old daughter Gracie Mei in China. Of their seven children, only four were able to move to China with them, which is one reason, he says, they had always planned to return home around now.

Still, the general GOP dissatisfaction with its options for 2012 scrambled Huntsman's plans dramatically in the past few months; when the family bought a $3.6 million house in Washington last fall in anticipation of their move home, he was thinking about running for President — but four years from now. "The thought in here" — he taps his temple — "was 2016, but the political marketplace moved," and it seems to have provided a vacuum too vast to resist. "If there was zero interest," he says, sitting on his hands in the would-be interrogation room, "we wouldn't be sitting here. We're encouraged by the level of interest and will let the rest of the month play out" — presumably in anticipation of jumping in come June.

A Rebel in His Own Mind
Jon Jr. was always "captain of the family team," says his father, who early in his career oversaw the invention of the egg carton and later the clamshell containers that Big Macs and Quarter Pounders come in. Young Jon, however, insisted on driving around in a beat-up van and eating in the grimiest diners possible. Just months shy of graduation, he announced that he was dropping out of high school to play keyboards in his band, Wizard. Says his former bandmate Howard Sharp, now an ob-gyn in Salt Lake City: "You have to remember, this was the '70s, and we had a singer who said that if we called ourselves Wizard, then our slogan could be 'Rock and roll magic!' "

In a phone interview with Huntsman Sr., I ask how worried he was when his namesake dropped out of school. "Oh, he thought he was going to make it big with a rock band. I knew he wouldn't, but I knew it was temporary," he says. "I'd stand and listen to his rock band and think, Oh, I'll be happy when this is over." Sharp adds that Huntsman never struck him as much of a rebel; even then, he came across more as the classically trained pianist he was than the keyboard superstar he wanted to be.

A year later, Wizard was history and Huntsman was working on his G.E.D., says his dad, and he later graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. He likes to brag that when he met his wife Mary Kaye, she was the salad girl and he was a dishwasher at a Salt Lake City Marie Callender's. He seems to think of the down-market setting as romantic, almost on a par with the divey restaurants he still makes a habit of seeking out. So I am not that surprised when longtime family friend Mary Eleanor Hurt, who knew Mary Kaye Cooper when the latter was an Episcopalian growing up in Orlando, Fla., says the only snobbery she's ever seen in her friend Jon is "maybe reverse snobbery." And it's not just a matter of proving his regular-guy bona fides in campaign season: "Mary Kaye finally told him they had to stop eating in some of those back-alley places" in China, Hurt says.

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