Standing outside a New Hampshire farmhouse in a faded jean jacket and brown corduroys, Republican Presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman Jr. issues a measured call for change. "This election cycle will put before all of us the prospect of a lost decade of growth," he says. "Or do we want to unleash the economic magic this country has shown the world time and time again?"
It's a campaign pitch better suited for a corporate boardroom than a Sunday barbecue in rural Franklin, N.H. That's O.K. with Huntsman, who says no candidate is connecting with business leaders the way he does. "I don't think there's any potential candidate in the field who's had as many conversations as I've had with CEOs," said the onetime Utah governor and former ambassador to China in an interview as he traveled to Concord. "I've had practically a CEO a day drop by in my life either as governor or as U.S. ambassador."
Huntsman, who has yet to formally declare his candidacy, waited until mid-May to make his first trip to meet with New Hampshire voters in their homes, diners, and VFW halls. His prospects in the state that hosts the first Presidential primary brightened with the May 22 decision by Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels not to run.
Like Daniels, Huntsman wears the "adult in the room" label that GOP mandarins and business leaders say they are searching for. While former Governor Tim Pawlenty and Representative Michele Bachmann, both of Minnesota, cater to the Tea Party crowd, Huntsman is zeroing in on the GOP's traditional, pro-business wing. The trim, soft-spoken 51-year-old steers clear of divisive social issues such as abortion and gay marriage and doesn't tout his gun-toting credentials. Instead, he talks to voters about chipping away at corporate income taxes, scaling back government regulation, and boosting trade.
As another candidate, Representative Ron Paul (R-Tex.), inveighs against the Federal Reserve, Huntsman credits the central bank with playing a key role in the recovery. And while the rest of the GOP field talks of China as a threat, Huntsman, who is fluent in Mandarin, stresses its market potential. "We will have more and more export opportunities for our small and medium-size businesses," he says. "So you want to change attitudes about China." That's a hard sell with voters such as Marty Russo, a retired serviceman who heard Huntsman speak in Franklin. "It's nice that we do business with China," he says. "But they still want to grind us into the dirt."
To reinforce his business credentials, Huntsman points to his record in Utah, where he moved the state from a progressive income tax with a top rate of 7 percent to a flat 5 percent tax. In meetings with CEOs, he also highlights his experience as an executive with Huntsman Corp. (HUN), his family's plastics and chemical company. John Frisbie, president of the U.S.-China Business Council, says Huntsman often met with top U.S. executives during his tenure in Beijing. "He's clearly very well regarded with the business community both on the ground in China but also back here, too," says Frisbie.
Huntsman is not the only Republican with business chops. There's former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, another ex-business executive. "[Huntsman] is clearly to my taste, but so is Mitt Romney," says Michael L. Ashner, chief executive officer of Winthrop Realty Trust (FUR), a publicly traded real estate investment trust headquartered in Boston. Ashner, who raised more than $1 million for Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the 2008 Presidential election, met with Huntsman recently. "Those are the two I'm focused on."
As he woos corporate cash, Huntsman can't ignore the Tea Party wing, a valuable source of manpower for any GOP campaign. As Republican skepticism of climate change has grown, he backed away from his support for a cap-and-trade system. The economy, he says, is too fragile to demand that businesses reduce their carbon emissions. Huntsman stands by his support for comprehensive immigration reform, though he notes he isn't sure there is the "appetite or the mood" to fix the problem unless the border is secured first. And he wouldn't say whether he would have voted for government rescues of the financial sector and auto industry, reviled by Tea Party activists as bailouts. "I know experts at the time argued that there wasn't much choice in the matter unless you wanted the country to go into a depression," he says. Still, he's quick to add, "I'm not saying what I would have supported."
William Mack, founder and chairman of Area Property Partners, a real estate fund manager, says Huntsman is "middle-of-the-road in a lot of situations," something he appreciates. The big question is whether that kind of steady, pro-business centrism is enough to win over his party.
The bottom line: Huntsman is competing with Romney to be the GOP's Establishment candidate. It remains to be seen if his time in China will be an asset.