A former ambassador to China and Singapore who speaks fluent Mandarin and has two adopted Asian children is one of the few credible remaining candidates for the Republican Party's nomination to contest the 2012 US Presidential elections.
Until recently, Jon Huntsman, Jr, former Utah governor and until April this year the Obama administration's ambassador to China, had been considered a rank outsider in the impending presidential race thanks to a lack of name recognition and moderate social positions expected to be unpopular with the Republican base.
Huntsman performed strongly as ambassador and was respected by the Chinese government, according to James Fallows, a China expert and veteran correspondent for The Atlantic who has met and interviewed Huntsman several times.
"He was certainly taken seriously by the Chinese both before the rumors about his running started and after, too," Fallows said. "Before the rumors about his running, it was a plus that he spoke Chinese, that he had a Chinese adopted daughter – and that he was a magnetic figure was seen as a sign of respect."
If Huntsman were to win the Presidency, US-China relations would stand to benefit from his deep knowledge of the administration in Beijing. "From an objective point of view and from China's point of view, it would be good for the US-China relationship, because he knows the subject and I think also has mastered what I view as the difficult trick for US-China relations, which is taking the place seriously without being afraid of it."
With the withdrawals of big-name Republican contenders Haley Barbour, Mike Huckabee, and, on May 22, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, Huntsman's star is starting to shine a little brighter. Although he hasn't yet confirmed a run for the presidency, he has just come off a five-day tour of New Hampshire – an obligatory trip through an early-voting state forthe Republican primaries – and is widely expected to announce his candidacy within days. The US media is starting to take notice, with TheWashington Post, NPR, Politico, and ABC News among the many now turningtheir attention to the potential dark-horse candidate as he lines up against former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, and outsiders Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, and Herman Cain.
Some observers believe Huntsman's Asian experience – he also served as ambassador to Singapore under President George H.W. Bush – would stand him in good stead for a run for the Presidency. "One thing that is perceived as lacking in the Republican field is foreign policy experience and understanding," says Kirk Jowers, director of the Salt Lake City-based Hinckley Institute of Politics and a former adviser to Huntsman. "Romney's very tough to beat if economy is the number one issue... but if foreign policy turns into the top issue, then that could be the opening that gives Huntsman some air."
When he left his post as Governor of Utah to assume his ambassadorial role in China in 2009, Huntsman took with him approval ratings of more than 80 percent. His popularity came despite what were seen as controversial social stances, such as supporting civil unions for gay couples. Jowers thinks the rest of the country will soon come to respect him as much as Utah does.
"I think America will like him." Jowers said. "He's humble, he's interesting, he's different than most politicians – he's much more of a diplomat."
A motocross enthusiast, Huntsman is also a rock musician who left high-school early to join a band. Not only does he speak Mandarin fluently, but he also has two adopted daughters – one from China, and one from India. His father, Jon Huntsman, Sr, meanwhile, is a billionaire, having founded the Huntsman Corporation, the world's largest chemical company. Huntsman, Jr's own personal fortune is valued at between US$11 million and $74 million.
If Huntsman were to become President, it could be good news for US-China relations, Fallows says. After rumors of his running were made public, the Chinese may have actually paid more attention to him, Fallows adds, on a ‘just in case' basis.
In his final public address as ambassador, Huntsman delivered an unusually strong criticism of China's human rights record, and said several prominent activists – including 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and artist Ai Weiwei – had been unfairly detained. He also accused China of wrongly imprisoning American geologist Xue Feng, who was jailed for stealing state secrets while gathering information on the oil industry. Fallows says that in normal circumstances the speech could have been seen as exactly the right tone for a departing US ambassador to strike. However, the concurrent rumors of his impending Presidential run complicated that.
"Viewed in complete isolation, I thought the speech was very good," says Fallows. "The fact that we can't view it in complete isolation is why it's too bad he let there be so long a period between the rumors arising and his still being in office."
In the meantime, Huntsman faces significant challenges in the battle ahead for the Republican nomination. His national profile is almost zero, thanks in part to his being out of the country for the last two years, and he is a Mormon – a religious complication that can unfortunately be anathema to the Republicans' evangelical base, although the current GOP frontrunner, Mitt Romney, is also a Mormon.. His pro-civil unions for gay couples stance might also work against him, even though he is strongly anti-abortion. And he has also been criticized by the right for accepting the scientific consensus on globalwarming.
Then, of course, there's the fact that he dared work for President Barack Obama. In an interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos, Huntsman was unapologetic about his time behind enemy lines.
"I worked for the President of the United States," he said. "The President asked me, the President of all the people. And during a time of war, during a time of economic difficulty for our country, if I'm asked by my President to serve, I'll stand up and do it."
In January, President Obama said he couldn't be happier with Huntsman's service and that he wishes him well in his future endeavors. He couldn't resist, however, adding one final nugget: "I'm sure that himhaving worked so well with me will be a great asset in any Republican primary."
Hamish McKenzie is Asia Sentinel's US correspondent