Mormon rivals: Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman move from friendship to bitter feud

First Published      Last Updated Jul 19 2017 08:50 pm

Political pressures associated with presidential aspirations transformed the relationship between two prominent Mormon families — the HUNTSMANS and the ROMNEYS — from longtime friends to bitter foes.

It was his first chance to sell himself as a presidential candidate, and Mitt Romney was determined to make it memorable. The Massachusetts governor stood before a gathering of Southern conservatives in Memphis who knew little, if anything, about him.

And he began to sing.

"Born on a mountaintop in Tennessee, greenest state in the land of the free. …"

Just about everyone at the 2006 Southern Republican Leadership Conference knew the lyrics — the opening lines to the theme song from the Disney television series "Davy Crockett." Romney, though, changed the last line, turning his impromptu concert into a tepid joke about Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist, a physician who was obviously a popular local.

"Doc-torrr, Doctor Bill Frist, king of the wild frontier."

The crowd chuckled politely. One columnist winced.

"This sucking up to the hometown favorite coupled with Clark Griswold goofiness made me want to dive under the desk out of embarrassment for Romney and mankind," wrote Slate's John Dickerson. "The audience didn't care. They liked him and were still talking about him two days later."

Tall and lean, Romney wore a charcoal suit and a blue-and-white checkered tie. He stood behind a presidential-looking podium, and he fit the part. The 1,800 Republicans, mainly from the South and Midwest, came to size up the candidates. They wanted to know if Romney shared their conservative values and beliefs.

After his opening musical number, he dived into more traditional political fare. Romney criticized President George W. Bush for the growth in federal spending, then he praised Bush for fighting terrorism. He denounced gay marriage, then he said immigrants must learn English. The crowd repeatedly leapt to its feet and cheered.

When he finished, Romney made a beeline for the airport and left the wild frontier, not wanting to be there to hear the results of the presidential straw poll, the first of the 2008 election cycle.

With more than 2½ years before voters would pick the next president, nobody expected much of Romney, especially with Frist and eight others in the pack. The assumption was that voters, particularly Southern evangelicals, would reject Romney because of his faith, and yet the Mormon politician placed a surprising second in the straw poll.

Maybe the crowd liked his baritone.

In any case, the Romney acolytes went wild and, 1,500 miles away, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman cheered with them. He sent Romney a handwritten note on his gubernatorial stationery: "Mitt, well done in Memphis! You made us all very proud. It was just a hint of what is to come! Respectfully, Jon."

Within four months, though, their relationship would be in tatters. In place of an admiring friendship rose a bitter rivalry that has festered in the years since.

Roots to rift • That sudden collapse is even more stunning when considering the ties between the families. While Huntsman had first met Romney while running for governor in 2004, their families have been intertwined for decades. They are distantly related through Mormon pioneers. Their fathers — Jon Huntsman Sr. and George Romney — were friends and successful business leaders. Huntsman's mother had shared a college dorm room with Romney's sister. And now, Mitt and Jon were governors, seen as rising Republican stars, who ran into each other regularly.

Romney headlined a Lincoln Day dinner for Salt Lake County Republicans in early 2005 in which he poked fun at Massachusetts and heaped praise on his "home away from home."

"Being a Republican governor in a blue state is like being a cattle rancher at a vegetarian convention," he joked.

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