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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The second time I stop by their new home in Kalorama, a tony D.C. neighborhood dotted with minor embassies and major ambassadors' homes, Mary Kaye is exiting with an armload of dry cleaning, and Jon is walking another visitor out. "The sun is shining, and we're still married," he says, breathing deeply to take in air that's pure compared with Beijing's. Kalorama is the sort of place you'd mount a campaign for opera-board trustee from, not the presidency. But even with aides going, photographers coming and little 5-year-old Asha shrieking periodically, the Huntsmans are easy to be around. And Jon bats down compliments as reflexively as many women do, repeatedly telling his wife, "Don't be too sappy," as she's praising him. "You need to get the antidweeb lens on the camera," he tells the photographer taking pictures for this story, "and filter out the goofiness."

Huntsman is something of a renowned prankster, which helps take the edge off his good looks and high polish. "Asha, do you know they eat dogs like that in China? They put them in stew," he says while pointing to his daughter's pet spaniel, which shocks me but sends her into fits of laughter. A few years ago, he paged Sharp, the doctor friend he used to jam with, stat — as in, this is an emergency. "So I called him back rapidly," Sharp remembers, "and he says, 'It's a rock-'n'-roll emergency ... the Foo Fighters are coming to town, and we've got to get tickets.'" He loves to talk about his passion for cross-country motorcycle racing. "It's a different ride," he tells the photographer, "but you're forced to give it up after a while because you get too many broken bones." And if Huntsman was never quite the rebel he imagined himself to be, it's not for lack of trying. "Is tonight black tie?" he asks an aide ahead of an event at the University of South Carolina. "That kind of sucks."

On more prominent display, though, is the serious man who, like his wife, gravitates to people in pain. "In the quiet heart is hidden sorrow," Mary Kaye tells me several times as we're chatting, quoting from a Mormon hymn. Though the students at South Carolina respond well to the lighter moments in his talk, like the timeless advice "Never forget to rock and roll," Huntsman also wades into the heavy topics of depression and suicide, telling them, "I've had my heart broken more than once when friends of my kids' have taken their own lives." He decided to include that line because, Mary Kaye tells me, "you know there was someone sitting in that audience who's thought about it, and it's so important to remind people going through that that they are not alone."

Utah Grudge Match
Huntsman could see and raise Obama in the cool-and-cerebral department. Does he ever get good and mad? "When you step in the dog poop in the house," says his wife with a snicker. But shows of pique, his friends say, are not really in his repertoire. "You can be stern and forthright, and that's my management style," he tells me, "but when you lose it totally, that's a sign of weakness." One imagines Obama and his former ambassador, who were born just a year apart, one-upping each other with humorous asides in the heat of political battle and, if things got really crazy, perhaps letting fly with a searing look.

When I ask where he disagrees with Obama, he says, "I'm a little reluctant, days off the plane, to take shots." There's something to admire in every President he's known, he adds, and he launches into a canny but glass-half-full rundown on Nixon, Reagan, both Bushes and Obama. The current occupant of the Oval Office, he says, "is trying to pick up the pieces of our economy and make sense of a world grown more complex and confusing." And it does bother him, he says, to hear people arguing about who, Bush or Obama, should get more credit for bringing down Osama bin Laden. "Our country needs a little good news, and this was an American event, an American achievement, not a political one."

But in the age of the Tea Party, of cable and blogosphere bile, is there room for such civility on the national stage? Does the influence of the Tea Parties leave any room at all for a moderate like Huntsman? And does his party want to win badly enough to give anyone who might appeal to independents a shot? "Just because I don't yell, scream and shout," he says, "doesn't mean others aren't entitled to. And people want to be led" rather than pandered to, he insists, despite ample evidence to the contrary.

Huntsman's return sets up an unusual Utah grudge match between the once close Romney and Huntsman families. Though his father knew Romney's dad well, "I've only met [Mitt] a few times and think well of him," Huntsman says. "I don't want this to sound pejorative, but he's one of the most talented politicos out there." When I mention the cousinly connection, he is perhaps a tad quick to say, "Well, going back five generations." And yet, chimes in Liddy, "they got the same hair somewhere."

Neither Romney nor any of the other Republican aspirants has the foreign policy experience Huntsman has. But none are attempting as cold a start as he is either. He's still shaken very few hands, and he's spent little time lately in the American diners he says he loves so much. If he does enter the race next month, as expected, he will have to face some real interrogations, from real voters, and won't be able to tell them that now is not the time to fill in the blanks.

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