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‘Mormon Rivals’ — Romney, Huntsman fall short but LDS Church shines on national stage

First Published      Last Updated Sep 28 2015 07:45 pm

When Romney first entered the presidential race, odds were stacked high against a national Mormon candidate.

After returning from Beijing in early 2012, Jon Huntsman headed to the University of South Carolina to offer the commencement address.

The next day, a Sunday, Huntsman could have easily visited any of the half-dozen Mormon wards, or congregations, in or around Charleston.

Instead, Huntsman headed to Seacoast, a nondenominational megachurch.

Running for and serving as Utah's governor, Huntsman was labeled a Mormon; in the Beehive State, no one really questions candidates or officeholders on how devout they are. As a candidate, he was teaching an Aaronic Priesthood class in his Mormon ward and, when elected, he occasionally dropped by an LDS service near the Governor's Mansion. But he also was a regular church hopper. He raised his adopted daughter Asha with a nod to the Hindu faith. Daughter Abby Huntsman wed in the Episcopal-run National Cathedral.

In 2011, as he hinted at White House ambitions, a reporter asked Huntsman point-blank whether he was still a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"I'm a very spiritual person," he said, "and proud of my Mormon roots."

Pressed again, Huntsman sidestepped. "That's tough to define," he said. "There are varying degrees. I come from a long line of saloon keepers and proselytizers, and I draw from both sides."

That's not the answer Mitt Romney would have given. As young men, Huntsman and Romney had each traveled abroad on missions to share the Mormon message and seek converts. But through the years, their approaches diverged. Romney dove into church service, taking on leadership roles; Huntsman referred to himself as a cultural Mormon. Romney downed Diet Coke; Huntsman sipped Chardonnay.

A Newsweek cover illustration in June 2011 featured Romney, decked out in missionary garb, jumping, his hand on the Book of Mormon, and declared it was the "Mormon moment." The New York Times repeated the line. With Romney and Huntsman in the presidential race, HBO's "Big Love" and Broadway's "Book of Mormon" big hits, this was the time for the faith to enjoy the spotlight. But it also turned out to be an opportunity to show that Mormonism was not the monolith it had long been perceived.

Abby Huntsman, Jon's second-oldest daughter, says her dad is one of the "most spiritual guys I've ever met," but he doesn't talk much about Mormonism. When living in Asia, Abby recalled going to various churches, the same as when he was governor.

"That's always been who he is," she said. "I don't think what he said nationally was anything different."

Keeping his faith private, though, has earned disdain from some Mormons who saw Huntsman's aloofness as offensive.

Sen. Todd Weiler, a Mormon Republican like most members of the Utah Legislature, said Romney was more popular in the state than Huntsman, largely because of their disparate approaches to faith.

"Mormons believe that Mitt Romney is sincere about his faith and Jon Huntsman Jr. is a charlatan," charged Weiler, R-Woods Cross. "He kind of pretended to be a card-carrying Mormon when he ran for governor, but it was all a ruse."

An indicator of the popularity gap: Just weeks into Huntsman's presidential outing, a poll in Utah showed Romney 50 points ahead of him.

For journalists, the idea of a nondevout Mormon became a fascination. Many asked whether they should call him a "Jack Mormon," a term used to describe a Latter-day Saint who perhaps knocks back a few beers but still believes. Some saw it as a strategy by Huntsman to cool potential problems with the evangelical wing of the Republican Party.

Devout or not, Huntsman remained dogged by his religion. Not even 24 hours into his official presidential bid, as he toured a plant that makes infrared grills, a reporter wanted to know if he was Mormon.

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