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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

The Mormon Primary

Romney vs. Huntsman

Here’s a fascinating subtext to the upcoming Republican presidential primary: Two successful, politically astute, handsome, wealthy, Mormon Republicans with deep ties to Utah and Idaho could face off in the race.

It’s clear that 2008 contender, and one-time front runner, Mitt Romney will run again. He even showed up on David Letterman’s show this week – Dave tweaked him for not wearing a necktie – to take the barbs that go with reading a Top Ten List of things we don’t know about him. Number Two, Romney joked: “I have absolutely no idea where my birth certificate is.”

Meanwhile, Huntsman, the fluent Mandarin speaker, is resigning as our ambassador to China to come home and put together the pieces of a run for the White House. White House insiders have had fun with this, while no doubt being really steamed about what they see as an act of a political turncoat. Huntsman was called “the Manchurian Candidate,” for example, by new Chief of Staff Bill Daley and President Obama himself joked, “I’m sure that having worked so well with me will be a great asset in any Republican primary.”

In a fascinating piece, Politico calls this “The Mormon Primary,” and notes that the two men have little apparent regard for each other. Huntsman supported John McCain in 2008.

Politico says of the likely match-up: “The implications for Republicans are stark: Their front-runner, Romney, struggled in his 2008 bid to make gains with the evangelical Christians who play an important role in Republican primaries and saw his religion as exotic, or worse.

“The presence of a second Mormon in the race could help Romney by making the church seem less unusual to those who are unfamiliar with it. But it seems just as likely that Huntsman, with his strikingly similar profile, would erode Romney’s base of support, reordering the GOP field.”

In Utah, where folks know Romney as the savior of the 2002 Winter Olympics and Huntsman as a successful governor from a very prominent business family, a recent poll shows the former Massachusetts governor, not the former Utah governor, as the favorite of Utah Republicans. Writing at the Utah Policy website, Bob Bernick, dissects the polling, the politics and the religion and the LDS Church-owned Deseret News rounds up some of the national coverage the potential match-up has been generating.

An underlying theme in the national attention on these two men is, of course, their religious faith and its clear from the 2008 race that Romney’s LDS faith presented real problems when it came to his appeal to the evangelical base of the modern Republican Party.

As the respected analyst Stuart Rothenberg wrote back then: “Many in the media portray evangelical attitudes toward Mormonism as a form of bigotry and religious intolerance akin to the anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic sentiment that was once so prevalent in this country and is much rarer these days. But it is a very different kind of concern, a concern about the meaning of Christianity.”

At least one other thing is fascinating about both Romney and Huntsman being in the GOP primary hunt. Both have real records. Romney’s in business, the Olympic turnaround and as a Blue State governor who championed a health care bill not all that dissimilar to the Republican hated Obamacare. Huntsman’s record involves time as an innovative governor who then resigned that post to accept the appointment of a Democratic president to a very high profile diplomatic post.

While Romney has been hitting the hustings in New Hampshire and courting the Tea Party, Huntsman, as a diplomat, has largely been a back bench observer of issues like health care, the Wall Street bailout and the political turmoil that lead to a GOP takeover of the House.

Which posture – Romney’s or Huntsman’s – offers the best positioning for 2012? We may be about to find out.

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