- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 17, 2011

Some pundits and Republican naysayers contend that former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. is too moderate to win the GOP presidential nomination.

And that’s a claim he denies with vigor and a hint of anger.

During a recent interview with The Washington Times, Mr. Huntsman checked off his accomplishments as Utah governor from 2005 to 2009: making record tax cuts, signing into law the first school voucher program and overseeing the rise of his state’s economy to first-in-the-nation status.

He is confident that the race won’t turn on his religion and downplays whispers from evangelical Protestants who vow not to support a Mormon.

“These presidential nomination contests aren’t about religion; they’re about leadership,” Mr. Huntsman told The Times in the kitchen of his home in Washington’s tony Kalorama neighborhood.

Mr. Huntsman, 51, is proud of his leadership, which he predicts conservatives will respect despite his tenure as President Obama’s ambassador to China and his positive comments about what Republican voters see as an overly liberal president.

“All people have to do is look at the record. Sometimes they don’t, and they just rely on tags,” he said.

“When you look at what we did on record tax cuts, being pro-life and pro-Second Amendment, passing the largest tax cuts in the history of our state. We went to the No. 1 position economically,” he said. “Education reform, the first governor to sign a voucher program, we did it around special education.”

He noted that the Pew Research Center named Utah the “best managed state in America.”

Mr. Huntsman said he won’t stand a chance if voters allow the 2012 Republican presidential nomination to revolve around religion.

“If it’s about religion, I’ll always come up short anyway,” said Mr. Huntsman, a Mormon who until April 30 was Mr. Obama’s hand-picked ambassador to China.

Mr. Huntsman steers conversation away from one of his obvious advantages. If elected, he would be the only U.S. president with an intimate, firsthand knowledge of the culture, language and economy of China, the one country capable of eventually challenging U.S. economic and military supremacy.

He speaks fluent Mandarin and has spent much of his adult life on the communist mainland and in non-communist Taiwan, making a President Huntsman less likely to miss cultural nuances during critical trade and security talks.

But he and chief campaign strategist John Weaver know that few voters choose the nation’s chief executive on the basis of China planks, or foreign policy generally. Instead, he said, he will run on what former governors normally do — his record as a manager of a state — at a time when the nation is in dire need of successful management.

Mr. Huntsman declined to reveal his money-raising target for the end of this year, though he did say, “If the money comes in, it will be because we have a message of leadership people want. If we don’t raise the money, then we’re not on a winning trajectory.”

Although that seems to suggest that he will drop out of the contest sometime this year unless the donors start coming through for him, he insists that won’t happen: “We’re not going to drop.”

When asked again what he figures he will need to have raised by December to stay in the race, he laughed softly and said, “A lot. It’s going to go all the way to Florida, where I think the nominee is going to be decided.”

He recognizes Florida as a financially draining place to campaign, with several major TV markets and comfortably more people than the first four states in the Republican National Committee’s approved primary/caucus calendar combined: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.

“That’s a big, expensive media market, yet I think that’s where the nomination is going to be won,” Mr. Huntsman said.

Still, the former Utah governor said he will vigorously contest New Hampshire, where former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is a clear front-runner. The four latest polls at Real Clear Politics give Mr. Romney an average 21.7 percentage point lead.

Mr. Huntsman and Mr. Romney are the wealthiest contestants for the nomination, but Mr. Romney — campaigning for far longer — has far outraised Mr. Huntsman. Whether Mr. Huntsman is willing and able to match or exceed the television ad spending of the top candidates going into Florida, he won’t say.

Mr. Romney raised $18.25 million from April through June. Mr. Huntsman raised $4.1 million in his first 10 days of his candidacy, “about a third of it in seed money” from his own pocket, he said.

Mr. Huntsman betrayed no concern that he is in a tie with former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania — at 2 percent each — for last place among 10 declared and prospective nomination candidates in Real Clear Politics’ average of recent polls.

Still, Mr. Huntsman faces an uphill campaign because he served a liberal Democratic president and because many evangelical Protestants, who play a significant role in Republican presidential contests, say they won’t vote for a Mormon.

Also, Mr. Romney — a better-known wealthy Mormon who also has been around the nomination track once before — is running and has had a large, multistate, experienced organization in place for a long time.

Again, Mr. Huntsman’s answer is: “Because it’s not going to be about religion, but about leadership.”