For 2012 Hopeful, Envoy Job in China Was a Useful Detour

Mr. Huntsman accepting the nomination by President Obama as ambassador to China in 2009. His time in China provides help, as well as potential roadblocks, to his presidential campaign.
As guests including Barbra Streisand and Yo Yo Ma mingled in three resplendent rooms in the White House in January to honor President Hu Jintao of China, David Axelrod, President Obama’s senior strategist, needed to take care of some political housekeeping.

The president’s envoy to Beijing, former Gov. Jon M. Huntsman Jr. of Utah, a Republican who was in town for Mr. Hu’s visit, was rumored to be considering a run for the boss’s job in 2012. Happening upon Mr. Huntsman in the State Room, Mr. Axelrod confronted him.

“He said, ‘I don’t know where this is all coming from,’ ” Mr. Axelrod recalled, “ ‘It’s way overblown.’ ”

When Mr. Axelrod shared that story during an interview last week, Mr. Huntsman was completing plans for an announcement on Tuesday that he indeed intends to run for president.

Mr. Huntsman’s decision prompted a mix of suspicion and resignation among the president’s advisers: suspicion that Mr. Huntsman had not always been straight about his national aspirations, and resignation that, as one presidential strategist put it, “There’s no loyalty in politics,” especially when it comes to across-the-aisle alliances.

Mr. Huntsman, 51, who resigned as ambassador in late April and declined to comment for this article, is joining the presidential campaign scene as a relative unknown outside Utah. Yet he is among those who are being taken most seriously by Mr. Obama’s aides, who after working with him for more than two years say he could be formidable if — and they consider this a big “if” — he can navigate a nominating contest likely to be decided by voters who may view him as too moderate.

He is a Mormon whose missionary work took him to Taiwan, where he became fluent in Mandarin Chinese. He has benefited from the wealth generated by a family business, the Huntsman Corporation, that is one of the largest chemical companies in the world. He opposes abortion rights and supports same-sex civil unions.

But it is his path from the Utah governor’s mansion to the United States Embassy in Beijing and now to the presidential campaign trail that has gotten him particular attention, representing a rare moment in American history in which a member of a presidential administration turns to run against it.

Mr. Obama’s decision to name Mr. Huntsman his ambassador to China in 2009 was hailed by members of both parties as another act of political wizardry, a chance to show that the president was trying to infuse his administration with a bipartisan spirit.

The president’s aides had by then identified Mr. Huntsman, a rising star of the Republican Party, as a potentially strong opponent in 2012. And Mr. Obama’s team basked in accolades among political strategists for taking Mr. Huntsman out of the mix and packing him off some 7,000 miles away.

Mr. Huntsman’s time in China has indeed created a potential roadblock for his campaign; Mr. Obama has teased him publicly about how his service in the administration will play among the Republican faithful.

But in some ways it has proved to be a help. It has bolstered his position as the only candidate in a field dominated by former governors to have direct foreign policy experience. And it put him in proximity to some of the nation’s leading chief executives — and potential campaign donors and fund-raisers — as they sought assistance in doing business with China.

Diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks show meetings with the leading executives from Cisco, Pfizer and Wal-Mart; close contact with the United States Chamber of Commerce; and requests for help from the Las Vegas Sands casino, the chairman of which, Sheldon Adelson, is a major Republican fund-raiser.

On the negative side of the political ledger for Mr. Huntsman, a confidential cable in November 2009 signed by him and sent to Mr. Obama appears to credit the president for “working with China to manage the worst of the financial crisis” and reads: “Mr. President, your commitment to building a relationship with China that will allow us together to shape the 21st century has the attention of our country, China, and the world. We are proud to be a part of your team.”

(In that cable Mr. Huntsman, who has recently backtracked on his support for legislation capping greenhouse gas emissions that was unpopular among conservatives, also hailed “China’s commitment to clean energy and to addressing greenhouse gas emissions” as “impressive.” Advising the president to reiterate his position that “America embraces China’s rise,” he also said the president should urge Mr. Hu to push harder on North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.)

The cable was written in prelude to the president’s trip to China in 2009.

Speaking Sunday on the CNN program “State of the Union,” Mr. Axelrod said Mr. Huntsman had been “effusive” about what Mr. Obama was doing when Mr. Axelrod accompanied the president to China during that 2009 trip.

“He was encouraging on health care,” Mr. Axelrod said. “He was encouraging on the whole range of issues.”

A spokesman for Mr. Huntsman, Matt David, called Mr. Axelrod’s description of that conversation “absurd,” saying it was evidence that Mr. Huntsman’s candidacy “scares” the White House.

Mr. Huntsman’s aides pointed to his recent statements that he agreed to become ambassador out of a sense of duty, not to tee up a presidential run.

“Governor Huntsman served the president the same way he did Reagan, Bush senior and George W. Bush,” Mr. David said, referring to his jobs as a staff assistant for President Ronald Reagan, ambassador to Singapore for the first President Bush and a deputy trade representative for the second.

Mr. Huntsman had already been in the early process of exploring a 2012 presidential run when his discussions about the ambassador’s job began. His political strategist, John Weaver, was beginning to form a team and was taking Mr. Huntsman around to early voting states when, according to a 2009 White House memorandum on the appointment, a White House adviser mentioned Mr. Huntsman as a possible ambassador to China.

The adviser, Jeff Bader, had worked with Mr. Huntsman in the younger Mr. Bush’s trade representative’s office and “was impressed by Governor Huntsman’s excellent relations with his Asian counterparts,” the memo read, adding, “He’s a ‘no drama Obama’ type.”

Mr. Huntsman’s decision to accept the posting was taken inside and outside the White House to mean that he was scuttling any plans for 2012. But even before Mr. Axelrod came across Mr. Huntsman at the state dinner in January, there were signs that a run was coming together.

Last fall, local supporters, together with Mr. Weaver, started a political action committee on Mr. Huntsman’s behalf in Utah, though one official involved told The Deseret News of Salt Lake City that it would, if anything, be geared toward a possible run in 2016 while helping like-minded candidates in the meantime.

Around the same time, Mr. Huntsman was reported to have bought a new home in Washington. Finally, a statement he gave to Newsweek in January left little doubt: “We won’t do this forever, and I think we may have one final run left in our bones.” He declined at the time to comment on whether he would run in 2012, the magazine noted.

Mr. Huntsman announced in late January that he would resign as ambassador. His political aides said they had already set about building a political organization without him — because of federal provisions barring political appointees from engaging in campaigns — that he could jump-start for 2016 or, if he was ready now, 2012.

He decided he was ready now.

New York Times

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