Three months before President Obama nominated Jon M. Huntsman Jr. as ambassador to China, Mr. Huntsman arrived here to introduce himself to three dozen influential Republicans and talk politics with them over dinner at the Palmetto Club.
Mr. Huntsman, then serving his second term as governor of Utah and prospecting for his political future, worried aloud that Republicans were growing out of touch with a generation of Americans. If the party wanted to win national elections again, he argued, Republicans needed to broaden their appeal to young voters, Hispanics and independents.
He will put that argument to the test if he joins the 2012 Republican presidential race.
After spending nearly two years as the top American diplomat in China, Mr. Huntsman returns to the United States next week. He has scheduled visits next month here in South Carolina and in New Hampshire, where the Tea Party and social conservatives hold significant sway and have changed the political landscape.
Conservatives will be particularly wary of the part about Huntsman's fan base, in bold below:
A candidacy by Mr. Huntsman would test just how frustrated voters are with the party's current lineup and would determine whether there is room in a Republican primary for a fiscal conservative and social moderate, who would present himself as a strong general-election choice.
Mr. Huntsman has been coy about his intentions. A group of Republican aides, nearly all of whom are alumni of Senator John McCain's presidential campaigns, have been working behind the scenes to promote a potential candidacy. They say they have not coordinated with him, which would be a violation of federal law because he is a government employee who cannot engage in elected politics.
Conservatives may remember that conservative-baiting Sen. McCain was the Times' favorite Republican until the day he clinched the nomination and became the only thing standing between a historic Democratic president (either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama).
Mr. Huntsman, 51, is a motorcycle-riding, keyboard-playing, Mandarin-speaking Mormon who worked in the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George Bush and George W. Bush. His family, which owns the Huntsman Corporation, a global chemical company, is one of the wealthiest in Utah, worth more than $1 billion, which has fueled speculation that he could invest his own money into a campaign.
Mr. Huntsman's résumé does stand out, in part because of his strong foreign policy credentials. In addition to serving as the ambassador to China, he was ambassador to Singapore for the first President Bush and a deputy trade ambassador for the second.
He opposes abortion rights, and his record as a fiscal conservative is solid. But after winning a second term as governor in 2008, he praised the Obama administration's economic stimulus program, advocated civil unions for gay couples and supported the cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions, all of which drew favorable attention among moderates but criticism from some conservatives.
Support for Obama's stimulus and cap-and-trade hardly bespeak a "solid" record of "fiscal conservatism."
Denver-based reporter Kirk Johnson similarly rallied around a moderate Huntsman candidacy in March 2009 , when Huntsman was still governor of Utah, marveling how he remained popular while challenging "Utah's conservative verities." Johnson followed up in May 2009 , revealing this likely explanation of why Huntsman is so popular at the Times: "Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah, a hugely popular Republican from one of the nation's most conservative states, made waves and headlines in recent months by suggesting that his party would need to move toward the center to start winning national elections again."
The election results of November 2010 would seem to discredit that theory, but that isn't stopping the Times from promoting another moderate Republican candidate.
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