Huntsman and Romney on a collision course

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Jon Huntsman Jr. arrived here from Beijing on Friday to mull a White House bid against the man who made him ambassador to China, a matchup that would offer no shortage of personal drama.

But before taking on President Obama, Huntsman would face another loaded showdown -- against Mitt Romney, a persistent foil with whom he has long competed for influence and stature.

Their race would match a popular former Utah governor (Huntsman) against the state’s beloved adopted son (Romney), reviving a behind-the-scenes rivalry that has occasionally broken into the open. It first flared when Romney was tapped to take over the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics -- a position that Huntsman’s father, a powerful chemical magnate, was pushing for his son. It surfaced again before the 2008 presidential race, when Huntsman abandoned his support for Romney to campaign for rival John McCain.


The prospect of the two running for president “is putting a lot of prominent business persons and politicians in Utah in a difficult, awkward situation,” said Randy Dryer, a Democratic lawyer in Salt Lake City who is friendly with both men. “It’s going to make for some interesting political theater.”

Both hail from influential, tight-knit Mormon families. Both served as governors. But despite similar backgrounds, Huntsman and Romney have never been close, moving in largely different spheres -- one in business, the other in government. A 13-year age gap and very different personal styles deepened the distance, leading to a cool and occasionally contentious relationship, according to people who know both men.

Huntsman’s brother, Peter, who frequently speaks on his behalf, did not return calls for comment. Efforts to reach another Huntsman representative were unsuccessful. Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom declined to describe the dynamic between the two men, saying only, “Mitt Romney respects Jon Huntsman as a former governor and considers him a fine person.”

That the two would be pitted against each other is almost inevitable, considering their lineage. Jon Huntsman Sr., who made his fortune developing the clamshell packaging for McDonald’s Big Macs, among other products, is a well-known philanthropist whose name is affixed to institutions across Utah. Romney’s father, George, served as governor of Michigan and ran for president in 1968.

“You’ve got two powerful Mormon families, both of whom have had their eye on the presidency,” said Utah political consultant Doug Foxley, who served as a senior advisor to Huntsman when he was governor. “I think it’s just the inevitable clash of two families and of the rising stars of both families who want the same thing at the same time.”

The sons have often been lumped together as Mormon politicians -- wrongly, say those who know both.

“They share some similarities with their religion, but their experiences in life are vastly different,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, who ran Huntsman’s first gubernatorial campaign and served as his chief of staff for a year.

Huntsman, 51, who served as ambassador to Singapore and U.S. trade representative before being elected governor of Utah in 2004, is often described as a restless scholar of the world.

“He would much rather be reading an 18th century Chinese geography book than practically anything else,” said Lew Cramer, president of Utah’s World Trade Center and a longtime friend who worked with Huntsman in Washington.

Romney, 64, forged a successful career in business before he won the governor’s seat in Massachusetts in 2002. While he is known for a sometimes stiff public persona and aggressive business drive, associates said he is more easygoing offstage.

“He’s certainly not willing to make a great off-color joke, but he’ll good-naturedly slam you a little bit,” said Kirk Jowers, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics and Federal Relations, who has known Romney for years. “He is a great guy to share a root beer with.”

The Olympic collision came in 1999, when Utah leaders were frantically looking for someone to right the Salt Lake City Olympics in the wake of an international bribery scandal. Robert Garff, who chaired the Salt Lake Organizing Committee and conducted the search with then-Gov. Michael Leavitt, said he immediately pursued Romney.

“He knew how to turn businesses around,” Garff said.

But the Huntsman family believed Jon Huntsman Jr. -- at the time vice chairman of Huntsman Corp. -- was a natural choice.

According to another person familiar with the selection process, Leavitt was approached by a Huntsman ally who said the 39-year-old was interested in the position, if he could be selected outright.

That was not at the younger Huntsman’s explicit urging -- he never sought the post and was later upset that he was portrayed as a candidate, according to an associate familiar with his thinking. In the end, Huntsman was not seriously considered for the job, according to multiple sources.

“Mitt Romney was the man to pick,” said Garff, who emphasized that he admired and respected both men. “It would be unfair to say Mitt Romney was picked over Jon Huntsman. He was still a young man and just beginning to build his vitae. That wouldn’t have been a horse race at the time.”

But the Huntsman family bridled at the decision. After the vote, Huntsman Jr. turned down a spot on a newly formed Olympic management committee because, he said, he didn’t support the process in which Romney was hired. “A search was never fully carried out,” he told the Deseret News.

His father criticized the Olympic leadership, calling Romney “very, very slick and fast-talking.” He criticized Romney’s efforts to raise $100 million from prominent Utahans, saying that would rob financial support from local charities.

Garff hurriedly brokered a series of meetings with Leavitt, Romney and Huntsman Sr. Afterward, the chemical company executive held a news conference saying his concerns had been alleviated. He ultimately donated $1 million to the Games.

When Romney geared up for his first presidential run in 2007, Huntsman Sr. signed on as one of his early national finance chairs. Initially, it appeared his son -- then governor of Utah -- would also back Romney.

In May 2005, Huntsman Jr. told the Deseret News that he was informally advising Romney on foreign policy. “I’ll do whatever I can” for him, the governor told the newspaper.

But in July 2006, Huntsman Jr. announced he was backing McCain. Although he admired Romney, Huntsman said, he and McCain shared similar views on immigration and the war in Iraq.

“Being politically monochromatic as a state isn’t always in our long-term interests,” he said.

Romney learned about Huntsman’s switch from newspaper reports. The two have had little contact since. But that may change if Huntsman follows him into the 2012 presidential race, a decision expected within weeks.

“It puts some of us in a more awkward position than others,” said Chaffetz, noting both have been helpful to him. “Right now, personally, I’m going to keep my powder dry.”