KEENE, N.H. • There’s a question that Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman loves to pop out from time to time as he campaigns across New Hampshire: “What language do you want me to answer in?”
Tossing out a sentence or two in Mandarin gives Barack Obama’s former U.S. ambassador to China an opportunity to showcase his foreign policy credentials and position himself as a cultural bridge-builder. Not to come off as too highbrow, though, Huntsman also adopts a fake New Hampshire accent at times and joshes about eating lobster rolls for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Both ploys hint at the challenge facing Huntsman, whose defining moment in the Republican presidential race could be here, and now, in the towns and villages of New Hampshire.
After sitting out the Iowa caucuses and investing all his hopes in this state, Huntsman has struggled to find a voice that resonates with voters. The former Utah governor is proud to announce that he’s no longer “the margin-of-error candidate” — in New Hampshire, at least. But he’ll need to do far better than that for his campaign to continue after Tuesday’s primary.
“Who’s that guy?” a factory worker asked as Huntsman visited a plant in Keene recently.
The answer — Huntsman’s biography — is complex.
He’s an Obama administration appointee running in a GOP primary where candidates have been working to out-conservative one another.
He’s a Mormon navigating a process typically dominated by evangelicals.
He’s a Harley-riding, high-school dropout who frequents taco stands, and the son of a billionaire businessman.
Here’s what Huntsman, 51, would have you know, first and foremost: “I can get elected.”
To expand on that, he offers himself as the “sane Republican,” one offering “good, center-right, pragmatic, problem-solving leadership.”
“We’ve got to have someone who isn’t being teed up by the establishment,” Huntsman says in dismissing his GOP rivals.
Huntsman has never been traditional or establishment.
Growing up in Utah, he ditched the end of high school to play with local jazz and rock bands.
Those years ended when he briefly enrolled at the University of Utah through a program that granted him admission without a high school diploma. He then went on a Mormon mission to Taiwan, where he learned to speak Mandarin.
He later attended the University of Pennsylvania and graduated with a degree in political science, then entered public service and eventually worked for President Ronald Reagan and both Bush presidents.
In 1993, after leaving his post as ambassador to Singapore, Huntsman became president of the Huntsman Cancer Foundation and eventually CEO of Huntsman Family Holdings, the umbrella company for the multibillion-dollar corporation founded by his father.
Huntsman first ran for Utah governor in 2004, winning with 57 percent of the vote.
As governor, proposals to significantly boost education spending and a repeal of the tax on food garnered him support from moderate members of both parties. He also supported school tuition vouchers, pushed through a mostly flat income tax and backed a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in 2004.
In the 2008 campaign, the most effective argument that Democrats could muster was that Huntsman was unlikely to serve his full second term. They were right.
Senators lavished so much praise on him during his confirmation hearing to be Obama’s ambassador to China that Huntsman said he hoped to fare as well at his funeral. Taking up his post in Beijing amid sometimes unsteady U.S.-China relations, Huntsman prodded the Chinese on human rights and worked to expand U.S. engagement with the growing economic powerhouse.
Huntsman was expected to be a force in the 2012 presidential race long before he officially joined the crowded field in June.
The 51-year-old California native offered a unique set of qualifications as a former GOP governor with experience working under presidents of both parties.
Perhaps it’s the connection to Obama, but Huntsman has struggled to win over the more conservative voters who typically dominate Republican primaries.
Despite his more moderate positions on global warming, the war in Afghanistan and gay rights, Huntsman offers himself as a “consistent conservative.”
“Don’t mistake a moderate temperament for a moderate record,” he admonishes.
That points to another Huntsman challenge — his low-key demeanor.
Huntsman freely admits that he’s not a verbal bomb-thrower in a political era where brash rhetoric is often rewarded, particularly by a Republican electorate looking for a nominee who will aggressively take it to Obama. Huntsman tries to turn his style into a positive, saying that he’s outlining goals that are achievable, while his opponents are “campaigning on a bunch of nutty ideas to whoop up folks in a crowd.”
In recent days, Huntsman has gotten more pointed in drawing a contrast to the other Mormon ex-governor in the race, front-runner Mitt Romney, whose conservative convictions also have come under question.
“People want to know your core,” Huntsman says. “I haven’t been on three sides of all the issues.”
Friends and colleagues describe a man who puts a priority on family and authenticity.
“He’d rather lose than be inauthentic,” says wife Mary Kaye, a near-constant companion in New Hampshire.
The couple has seven children, including one daughter adopted from China and another from India.
Their three oldest daughters, whose tweets as (at)Jon2012girls have a big following, generated a huge amount of buzz with a video spoof of an ad by former rival Herman Cain. They donned oversized glasses and fake mustaches to look like Cain’s campaign manager.
Huntsman, who so far has loaned his campaign $2.2 million of his own money, says he’s getting a second look now from voters who dismissed him at first because he’d crossed the partisan divide to work for Obama.
He’s looking at the jumbled results from Iowa, and hoping they suggest that voters still are open to somebody else.
“There’s a whole lot of blue sky for the rest of us,” he said.