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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.
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