Dems find awkward foe in Huntsman

If Jon Huntsman is not the most feared potential Republican opponent for President Obama in 2012, he certainly would be the most awkward.

As the former ambassador to China plots a possible presidential bid, Democratic operatives have yet to figure out how to handle a man who, until two weeks ago, was a loyal and highly praised member of the Obama administration.

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Democrats in Washington and the early primary states have worked aggressively to define — and criticize — leading GOP contenders like former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.). They have skewered Romney for his position on healthcare, Pawlenty for his fiscal record as governor of Minnesota and Gingrich for his conservative policy portfolio.

Ask Democrats about Huntsman, however, and the most frequent response has been: “No comment.” They offer nothing but praise for his service to Obama, and nary a word of criticism about his five years as the Republican governor of Utah.

Yet as a Huntsman challenge to his former boss appears more likely, Democrats in GOP battlegrounds are slowly shedding their pleasantries.

“If you want an Obama administration nominee for president, then you ought to stick with Barack Obama,” the chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, Dick Harpootlian, told The Hill in an interview Monday. Huntsman is expected to make a serious play for South Carolina if he runs, and he made the state his first political stop after returning from China earlier this month.

As a “billionaire” who has spent the last two years in China, Harpootlian said, Huntsman “has little or no concept of how the average American lives.”

“I think that he’s not in touch with the average American,” Harpootlian said. “He hasn’t been there to feel their pain, and he’s been hanging around with Communist Chinese leadership for the last couple years.”

A Huntsman spokesman, Tim Miller, declined to respond to Harpootlian, who began his second stint atop the South Carolina Democratic Party this month. The Democratic National Committee and the state parties in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada declined to comment on a Huntsman candidacy.

Senior Obama advisers have considered the former Utah governor a formidable foe since the earliest days of the administration, when David Plouffe, who ran Obama’s 2008 campaign, acknowledged the possibility of facing Huntsman in 2012 made him “a wee bit queasy.”

Obama’s appointment of Huntsman as the envoy to China was seen as a way of keeping him off the field next year, but after serving less than two full years in Beijing, Huntsman appears to be moving steadily toward a run. The White House’s initial strategy has been to poison him with praise, with the expectation that Huntsman’s ties to Obama would ruin his chances of winning over the conservative Republican electorate.

When the 2012 Huntsman buzz began in January, Obama lauded him for doing an “outstanding job” as ambassador. “I couldn’t be happier with the ambassador’s service,” he said at a press conference with Chinese President Hu Jintao, as Huntsman sat a few feet away. “And I’m sure he will be very successful in whatever endeavors he chooses in the future. And I’m sure that him having worked so well with me will be a great asset in any Republican primary.”

Two months later, White House Chief of Staff William Daley said Huntsman had done “an excellent job on behalf of the Obama administration.”

For his part, Huntsman has uttered no criticism of Obama in his initial forays into Republican primary politics. But Democrats are signaling that if he formally enters the race, they will treat him like any other GOP candidate — harshly.

Party operatives have already taken note of his newfound opposition to a cap-and-trade system to curtail climate change, which he supported as governor of Utah. And they are watching closely to see if he shifts his stance on gay rights after backing civil unions for same-sex couples.

“We’re curious to see which Huntsman shows up — one that supports gay rights, cap-and-trade and national health reform, or one that will change these positions to pander to Republican primary voters,” said a Democratic official granted anonymity to preview the party’s message on Huntsman. “Is he going to be the standard-bearer for the progressive wing of the Republican Party, or is he going to be Mitt Romney-lite?”

Huntsman’s camp noted there is no evidence that the ambassador supported national healthcare reform, beyond secondhand reports from Obama advisers that Huntsman told the president he backed his healthcare efforts.

For now, Democrats are hoping that Republicans tear Huntsman down before they have to worry about him. They have watched GOP activists debate leaked letters that Huntsman wrote to Obama before he headed to China, in which he praised the president as a “remarkable leader.”

“The letters and communication between he and Barack Obama are just gushing,” Harpootlian said. “What is it other than blind ambition that’s caused him to run if he was so happy with him for the last two and a half years?”

He added that Republicans “are going to have a hard time getting through their primary process without shredding each other. So I think the best thing we can do is sit back and watch Republicans do what they do well, and that’s eat their children, eat their own.”