The Republican candidate Obama should fear the most

Business Times - 27 May 2011

The Republican candidate Obama should fear the most


PRESIDENT Barack Obama and his aides have been going out of their way to praise former US ambassador to China Jon Huntsman for the great job he did representing the current Democratic administration in Beijing for two years, before deciding to resign while considering a presidential bid against his former boss in the White House.

Addressing members of the prestigious Gridiron Club during their annual dinner recently, Mr Obama joked that he was planning to campaign for Mr Huntsman during the Republican primaries and to tell the very conservative (and anti-Obama) Republican voters in Iowa and New Hampshire that 'Obama's Man in Beijing' was, indeed, a great team player . . .

Fifty-one-year-old Mr Huntsman has yet to announce that he is running for the Republican presidential nomination next year. But the leading Republican politician, who served as governor of Utah for four years, has already formed an official fundraising political action committee (PAC) - a first step towards announcing a run - and has been campaigning this week together with his attractive wife and children (including adopted children from China and India) in Manchester, New Hampshire, the site of the first Republican primary.

And as the Republican field of candidates for the upcoming 2012 presidential primary season starts to shape up, the consensus among political professionals in Washington is that Mr Huntsman will probably emerge as one of the three serious candidates in the race - the two others being former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former Wisconsin governor Tim Pawlenty.

It may seem counterintuitive to suggest that at a time when Sarah Palin and the ultra-conservative Tea Party members (including the infamous 'birthers') seem to be setting the agenda of the Republican Party, a former member of the Obama administration who holds relatively liberal views on social-cultural issues - Mr Huntsman supported legislation that would have allowed civil unions for same-sex couples in Utah - would succeed in winning the Republican presidential nomination.

But the question that is at the top of the minds of the majority of Republican primary voters is not whether gays should be allowed to marry or if Mr Obama was born in Kenya, but how to regain control of the White House next year. And from that perspective, the telegenic and much respected Mr Huntsman has all the makings of a Republican figure who could defeat President Obama next year.

Mr Huntsman, it should be recalled, was one of the most popular governors in American history, maintaining high approval ratings as governor of Utah that reached 90 per cent. Enjoying strong support among both Republicans and Democrats in the state, he received high marks for his management style and for turning Utah into a magnet for American and international businesses.

A son of a billionaire businessman and member of an old Mormon family in Utah, Mr Huntsman spent time in Taiwan as a Mormon missionary (he speaks Standard Mandarin and Taiwanese Hokkien fluently), and then served as a diplomat and trade official, specialising in East Asian affairs - as deputy assistant secretary of commerce, deputy US trade representative as well as US ambassador to Singapore - in the administrations of presidents Ronald Reagan, George HW Bush and George W Bush.

Mr Huntsman, who played in a rock band as a teenager and enjoys motorcycling, also gets very high marks on the 'coolness' barometer, making him very competitive in a race against Mr Obama, especially among young voters.

Moreover, Mr Huntsman's interesting mix of conservative fiscal policies and liberal social-cultural positions coupled with his strong background in foreign policy and his experience as a business executive (in his family's chemical company) could make him an ideal Republican candidate when it comes to attracting white middle-class independent voters who gave Mr Obama his margin of victory in the 2008 presidential elections.

Indeed, with his unique brand of 'pragmatic conservatism' and his appealing personality, Mr Huntsman - who had cut taxes and balanced the budget in his own state of Utah, and that too against the backdrop of a very sluggish economic recovery - would have a better than even chance of beating the incumbent Democrats in 'swinging' states like Virginia, Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Indiana, and even in a Democratic bastion like California. The fact that the American press loves him and the Republican Establishment and Corporate America respects him is certainly not going to hurt either.

But first he will have to get out of his way Mr Romney and Mr Pawlenty, two formidable candidates with a lot of money in the bank. He needs also to win the hearts and minds of those conservative Republican voters who would be reluctant to select as their presidential nominee one of President Obama's most favourite staff members.

Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


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