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‘Mormon Rivals’ — Huntsman fought Romney, then endorsed him, sort of

First Published      Last Updated Nov 29 2016 04:13 pm

‘Mormon rivals’ » Romney tagged Huntsman as an Obama surrogate; Huntsman said Romney was a “weather vane” shifting in political winds.

Jon Huntsman wasn't about to announce his presidential bid from China. Or from Utah. And starting your White House run in Washington, a town America loves to hate, wasn't a good idea. So Huntsman went to New Jersey.

He had no ties to the Garden State, but he had worked as a young staffer for President Ronald Reagan, who announced his 1980 general election launch from Liberty State Park with the Manhattan skyline and Statue of Liberty as a backdrop. The famous photo from that campaign event is Reagan, in a crisp white shirt, sleeves rolled up, pointing at the flame that sits atop America's most famous statue.

Huntsman wanted the same.

He didn't get it.

Reporters who showed up early were handed press badges proclaiming them part of the "John Huntsman for President Announcement Tour." When the misspelling of the candidate's first name was pointed out, staffers snatched them back, but not before an ABC News reporter tweeted out the image.

The crowd was slim — easily outnumbered by journalists. It was overcast — not the sunny, blue-sky backdrop chief strategist John Weaver had envisioned — but it wasn't raining. A staffer gave the expected two-minute heads-up to the TV camera crews when someone in the back yelled out. "Wait! We have no power!"

Fred Davis, Huntsman's ad guy, had warned organizers they needed two generators, one for the show and one to be ready. Due to cost concerns, only one generator was ordered, and it had died.

With only seconds to spare, the generator sputtered to life just as Huntsman started his long walk across the grassy park to the stage, holding hands with wife Mary Kaye and daughter Gracie and flanked by the rest of his kids.

"Today, I'm a candidate for the office of president of the United States of America," Huntsman declared on stage.

Not many Americans saw it. Five minutes in, CNN cut away to a commercial break, MSNBC already was seeking feedback from pundits and Fox News was on to commercials.

Not that the networks had the best view anyway. The media platform was too high, leaving most cameras pointed down at Huntsman so that his background was not the famed symbol of America but a Circle Line tour boat docked on Liberty Island.

Still, Huntsman was in, officially, and ready to jaunt to New Hampshire for another introduction to the Granite State, this time with a large contingent of media in tow. Reporters were rushed to the bus to head to Newark's airport, where, upon arrival, a Port Authority squad car escorted the entourage to a plane with Arabic writing on the side.

After some confusion, the reporters were shuttled to another plane that would be headed to Portsmouth, N.H., and not Saudi Arabia. At a packed Exeter Town Hall later, Huntsman gave a speech similar to the first one before jetting back to Jersey. It wasn't the kickoff he wanted.

"I was furious," Huntsman later recalled.

Campaign aides knew it was bad. Really bad. If they couldn't pull off a scripted, made-for-TV moment like the announcement, how could they run a campaign that needed to pivot in the rough-and-tumble race? But there wasn't much that could be done immediately. The pop-up team was already locked in place, and there was no time to start fresh.

"If the Titanic is sinking, you don't talk about the paint on the cabin doors," said a former Huntsman senior aide.

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Utah Lit selection

“Mormon Rivals: The Romneys, The Huntsmans and the Pursuit of Power” is the June selection for Utah Lit, the Salt Lake Tribune’s monthly book club. The authors also will discuss the book at a free public event at 7 p.m. Wednesday hosted by The Tribune’s Jennifer Napier-Pearce at The Leonardo, 209 E. 400 South, Salt Lake City. › Story on D1, or go to sltrib.com