Huntsman's service in administration gets pass from some GOPers

While Jon Huntsman's service in the Obama administration could pose a major challenge to his possible presidential campaign, Republicans on Capitol Hill say it's not a fatal blow to his candidacy.

Some Republicans said Huntsman's time as ambassador to China could even be an asset in his possible bid for the Republican presidential nomination. Others say his service is hardly the nonstarter with GOP primary voters many political observers have presumed.

ADVERTISEMENT
Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) said Huntsman would "absolutely" make for an acceptable Republican nominee.

"I consider it a compliment for anybody to be selected to be ambassador to China," Wilson said. "So I think that enhances his credentials — he was sent to represent the people of the United States."

Huntsman announced his resignation as ambassador earlier this year, but it became effective only last Saturday. His supporters helped assemble a political organization in the meantime, but were allowed no official contact with Huntsman, the popular former governor of Utah.

But in the week since resigning, Huntsman has rapidly accelerated his political activity. He established a federal political action committee, H PAC, to help build the framework of a possible campaign. And he's started to aggressively woo Republicans, particularly from New Hampshire and South Carolina, the two primary states where Huntsman is likely to focus his efforts if he runs.

There have been concerns, however, that Republican primary voters could be turned off by a candidate who worked for the Democratic president he’s trying to defeat.

The White House seems to have been piling onto this, constantly praising Huntsman’s service.

“He’s done an excellent job on behalf of the Obama administration,” White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in March, where he was barely able to suppress a smile as he spoke.

Even President Obama has gotten in on the action.

During a press conference with Chinese President Hu Jintao in January, the president said he "couldn't be happier" with Huntsman's service, noting: "I'm sure he will be very successful in whatever endeavors he chooses in the future."

Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), who serves as one of the House GOP freshmen’s liaisons to the leadership, said he'll meet with Huntsman this weekend in South Carolina, where Huntsman will be delivering the commencement address at the University of South Carolina.

Wilson will also attend the graduation ceremonies, and Huntsman will meet with South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) during his time in the Palmetto State.

Huntsman also barnstormed Capitol Hill for meetings earlier this week, though his advisers declined to detail with whom he met. And congressional Republicans expressed openness to his candidacy, along with the rest of the field.

But even the Republicans who could be most sympathetic to Huntsman acknowledge that he faces a tall task in convincing conservative primary voters of why he left his job as governor of Utah to become Obama's top diplomat in China.

"I think that that helps him, in my view," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a survivor of a conservative primary challenge last year, of Huntsman's service. "But you have to understand that there are other Republicans that look at that and say, 'Hey, he was an ambassador in the Obama administration.’ “

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who served as Huntsman's chief of staff before running for Congress, said he expects his former boss to run, and if he does, Chaffetz said, Huntsman will "play to win."

But the conservative Utah lawmaker acknowledged the advantages and challenges implicit in Huntsman's time working for the administration.

"I know he looked at it as service to the president and to the nation. But politically, it's a tough one. There's no ifs, ands or buts about it," Chaffetz explained. "In a general election, he has foreign policy [experience] and the president saying Jon Huntsman puts his country before his party. For independent voters, that's going to be an appealing asset."

Other Republicans haven't been as charitable. John Sununu Sr., the former White House chief of staff and governor of New Hampshire, who recently stepped down as that state's GOP chairman, has vowed to work against Huntsman's candidacy.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) hasn't spoken to Huntsman, but said she was glad he was coming to the Granite State (he'll deliver Southern New Hampshire University's commencement address on May 21). But she said she also understood Sununu's concerns.

"I think one of the big issues that certainly Ambassador Huntsman has to address is his work in the administration. That's going to be a question that Republicans will certainly want him to clarify and talk about," she said. "So I can appreciate why Gov. Sununu probably made those comments."

And he faces a challenge in low name recognition; Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who leads House conservatives as chairman of the Republican Study Committee (RSC), said he knew nothing about the former ambassador.

But Republicans shouldn't be so quick to accuse Huntsman of guilt by association, said other GOP lawmakers.

"I served as a assistant U.S. attorney when Janet Reno was the attorney general. I seemed to be able to overcome that in a Republican primary," said Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), who added that he doesn't plan to endorse any presidential candidate in the primary. "It's naive to think there won't be questions about it, but ultimately, where are you on the issues?"

"I don't think there's anything that's a nonstarter, other than voting for President Obama," said Scott. "I think that the door's still open — the question's what you do once you get inside."

But even if Huntsman gets in the race and Republicans give him a pass for serving as ambassador, it's no guarantee of success. Huntsman's team consists of a number of veterans of Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) presidential campaign, and his focus on New Hampshire and more establishment-minded Republicans puts him on the same turf as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R), who is the arguable front-runner in New Hampshire at the moment.

That makes it tough for GOP officials like Chaffetz, especially since both Huntsman and Romney have roots deep in Utah and its large Mormon population.

"For those of us who like both, it's a bit of a conflict at this point," he said.