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Huntsman: More or Less Than Meets the Eye?

Scenarios are a dime a dozen when it comes to political candidates, so the problem is figuring out which ones have value.

When it comes to Jon Huntsman’s impending presidential run, it isn’t yet clear whether the former Utah governor is a political powerhouse about to shake up the GOP race or a Potemkin village candidate who isn’t as real as he looks.

Huntsman certainly has assets.

“He’s clearly smart, handsome, engaging and charismatic, in a way,” one veteran Republican political insider who has dealt with him told me recently.

The son of billionaire businessman and philanthropist Jon Huntsman, Jon Jr. was a staff assistant in the Reagan White House and a deputy assistant secretary of Commerce under President George H.W. Bush. He was also deputy trade representative during the administration of President George W. Bush.

Huntsman, 51, was elected governor of Utah in 2004 and re-elected four years later. In 2009, 16 years after he ended his service as ambassador to Singapore, President Barack Obama appointed him ambassador to China. He resigned from that post recently to prepare to challenge his old boss.

The idea of a Mandarin-speaking former successful governor with extensive foreign policy and economic experience in the Republican race has more than a few insiders believing that Huntsman could be a major factor for the GOP nomination. His personal wealth, to say nothing of his father’s, adds to his credibility as a contender.

The former ambassador has already put together an intriguing team of advisers and operatives, some of whom have credentials from the 2008 presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

The team includes strategist John Weaver, media consultant Fred Davis, South Carolina guru Richard Quinn, former McCain New Hampshire chairman Peter Spaulding and Susan Wiles, who was campaign manager to now-Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R). Pollster Whit Ayres has been doing work for Horizon PAC, which is widely viewed as Huntsman’s operation.

Huntsman, who benefits from being a “fresh face” on the national scene, is likely to stress what his supporters call his conservative credentials — on abortion, taxes, guns and health care — and his successes in Utah. He will likely rely on an optimistic tone, without the anger that so many Republicans exhibit when they are discussing President Barack Obama’s performance.

But Huntsman’s list of weaknesses and vulnerabilities is even longer than that of his strengths and assets.

Like former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Huntsman is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. To some evangelicals, that is enough to disqualify Huntsman from the presidency. (See my “Why Mitt Romney Can’t ‘Solve’ His Mormon Problem,” Roll Call, Dec. 17, 2007.)

Huntsman’s appointment by Obama as ambassador is also a problem, given the animosity that many GOP activists have toward the president.

Huntsman deals with the issue by emphasizing that the appointment was merely another example of his extensive public service. That explanation might suffice were it not for a number of letters, first disclosed by the Daily Caller, a conservative website, written by Huntsman to Obama in which the ambassador oozes about the president’s leadership and brilliance.

Huntsman’s support for civil unions is also certain to be a problem for many primary voters. While he believes that marriage should be between a man and a woman, he also argues that “we can go a greater distance in enhancing equal rights for others in nontraditional relationships.”

You can bet, of course, that critics will turn his support for civil unions into support for gay marriage and other gay-rights issues, forcing Huntsman not only to defend himself but to talk more than he’d like about the issue.

Then there is the fact that there is a wealthy, good-looking, Mormon former governor already in the race.

Huntsman will try to distinguish himself from Romney by citing his conservative credentials and opposing an individual mandate on health care reform, but the former Utah governor has waxed eloquent on the importance of putting “a value on carbon,” and he has said that the only way to “get serious” about climate change is with either a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system.

How’s that going to fly among Republican caucus attendees and primary voters?

There are also plenty of questions about Huntsman as a candidate, as well as about his campaign.

He has run for office twice — for governor in Utah. Running for president is a whole other animal. And Huntsman’s early strategy, which includes taking a pass in Iowa and putting his chips on a strong performance in New Hampshire, raises many questions.

Huntsman certainly has the looks of a president, and you can find a number of YouTube clips in which he looks poised and sounds articulate.

But there are also clips on YouTube, such as his nomination of Sarah Palin for vice president at the 2008 Republican National Convention and his response to a question posed by a Michigan conservative website, when Huntsman’s performance was underwhelming.

Huntsman supporters talk about his electability, but even that is uncertain. Democrats surely would use footage of his Palin nomination speech to make him less appealing to swing voters, and his family’s chemical company could give environmentalists ammunition to use against him.

Republican strategists who aren’t working for Huntsman express mixed views about his campaign. Some treat him seriously, while others are extremely skeptical about his appeal. All are wondering whether he’s serious about not self-funding his bid — or whether his father will set up a super PAC to do so.

Weaver is somewhat controversial, with other consultants saying that he is skilled at planting stories with sympathetic media but pointing to his less than successful work for McCain in 2008.

Davis, on the other hand, is well-liked, and he has done some excellent work going back to the mid-1990s, when I wrote glowingly in this newspaper about his TV ads for Republican James Inhofe (R-Okla.).

But critics also say that too often Davis seems more interested in creating a splash than in moving poll numbers. Last cycle, he did an offbeat Web video for California Senate hopeful Carly Fiorina (R) featuring a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and Delaware GOP Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell’s “I am not a witch” spot.

Nobody knows yet whether Huntsman will be a formidable contender for the GOP nomination, and his viability depends, in part, on the makeup of the rest of the field and the dynamics of each caucus and primary contest.

Journalists and many in the chattering class seem impressed by him, but that’s probably reason enough to wonder whether he’ll resonate with Republican voters. I certainly expect a big Huntsman boomlet when he announces his candidacy, but I’m also starting out skeptical about Huntsman’s ultimate appeal.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.