Romney and Huntsman have differing leadership styles

Published: Saturday, Dec. 3 2011 8:38 p.m. MST

Presidential candidates Jon Huntsman Jr. and Newt Gingrich talk with Mitt Romney at a Republican presidential debate.

Evan Vucci, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Two of the GOP presidential candidates seem a lot alike — both held key roles in Utah, both served as governors, both have private-sector experience, both are members of the LDS Church and both come from influential families.

The biggest difference between Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman Jr., though, may well be their distinct leadership styles.

Romney, credited with turning around the troubled 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City after making millions of dollars in the business world, is viewed as a CEO, despite a term as governor of Massachusetts.

Huntsman, a former Utah governor who has spent time overseas serving as U.S. ambassador — including a prestigious posting in China — in addition to helping run his family's international chemical empire, is seen as a diplomat.

It's a difference that voters are beginning to see on the campaign trail.

Romney sells himself as a successful executive ready to run the country like a business and take the action needed to end its economic woes. It's a strategy that's helped him stay in front of the GOP pack through much of the race.

Huntsman, however, is languishing in national polls. Largely unknown, he is portraying himself as an offbeat outsider whose interests include rock music and motorcycle rallies, in addition to being a diplomat well versed in world affairs.

"Both skills are needed," said state Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, who worked closely with both Romney and Huntsman in Utah. Valentine backed Romney in his 2008 White House bid and is supporting him again for 2012 despite Huntsman's entry in the race.

"Romney is a very precise type of leader. He wants to know what the issues are, he wants to know what the alternatives are," Valentine said. Then he settles on a choice and goes for it.

"Huntsman is more laissez-faire," the former Utah Senate president said. "He doesn't focus as directly on alternatives. He's sort of, 'I'll surround myself with good people and let them make decisions.' … unless it's something he's really interested in."

Valentine recalled an Olympic oversight committee where Romney unsuccessfully pitched a special tax break aimed at getting the Games back into the black after the international scandal surrounding the city's bid.

Romney carefully laid out the options for closing the gap between revenues and expenditures, showing a detailed spreadsheet spelling out the shortfall in the Games budget.

"He was pretty animated with his defense," Valentine said. "I remember him with his big ol' smile saying, 'We want the Olympics to be successful and the state is going to have to help us where they can.' "

The answer from the committee, though, was no. Romney moved on, Valentine said. "He never took defeat easily, but once the decision was made, he supported the decision and lived with the decision."

In contrast, Valentine said, Huntsman "let 'his people,' which are mostly academic types" come up with specifics for overhauling Utah's tax structure a few years ago.

"He engaged in those issues, but his real passion was for (taking) the sales tax off food," Valentine said. Other issues that Huntsman threw himself into included establishing the now-defunct four-day workweek for state workers and easing tough liquor laws.

Huntsman was also different from other governors in how he confronted lawmakers and others who crossed him. Instead of "taking them to the woodshed" and chewing them out, Valentine said, Huntsman took a less confrontational approach.

"If anybody was ever 'woodshedded' by (former Governors) Norm Bangerter or Mike Leavitt, you knew what it was like to be woodshedded," Valentine said. "I never saw that from Huntsman. He would say, 'I'm very disappointed in you, what can we do.' "

U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who served as general counsel to the governor during Huntsman's first term, said Huntsman did not outsource his decisions.

"It is true he'll allow people with different and divergent interests to make a presentation before he makes a decision," Lee said. "In all aspects of his personality and all aspects of his leadership, he is very diplomatic."

But, Lee said, Huntsman was not afraid to break ranks with other Republicans on issues that matter to him, such as the effort a few years ago to restore dental benefits to the state's poorest residents.

"He fought hard on that," Lee recalled. "When he made a decision, especially if it was a decision he was very excited about, he would fight hard for it."

Massachusetts anti-tax activist Barbara Anderson met Romney during his first political race in 1994, a failed attempt to unseat the late Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy. Years later, she called Romney at the downtown Salt Lake Olympic headquarters to urge him to run for governor in 2002 "and save Massachusetts."

"This isn't someone who's going to sit and watch things go wrong. He's going to do something," Anderson said. "I get the impression it's a personality thing."

Romney, she said, never really cared much about the social issues like gay marriage and abortion rights that have gotten him in trouble over the years because of his shifting positions.

"He cares about what he cares about, which is the economic issues," Anderson said. "I have no idea what his real convictions are" on those social issues. "He was going along with the base so he could get things done."

Romney's biggest accomplishment in office was pushing through sweeping health care reform in Massachusetts, at the same time he was positioning himself for his first White House bid.

"Whatever your perceptions are of 'Romney care,' that was an extraordinary achievement," said William Crotty, a political science professor at Boston's Northeastern University.

And, he said, it's a primary example of Romney's problem-oriented approach to governing.

"With Mitt Romney, you get exactly what he seems to be," Crotty said. "He is essentially no-nonsense. He is very much the CEO type."

Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics and a longtime Romney friend and supporter, said Romney's experience buying up failing companies and reselling them at a profit prepared him to tackle a wide range of issues in the public sector.

To be a successful turn-around artist, Romney and his associates had to dip deep into a company's financial situation, Jowers said. In the public sector, people learn quickly that Romney wants details, he said.

That "throws a lot of experts off, because typically public officials are looking for the sound bite, the short answer," Jowers said. "It's ingrained in him to dig below the superficial answers."

Utahns saw that firsthand when Romney took over the Olympics, Jowers said.

"We saw him come in and deal with the very complex situation with the Olympics, which dealt with everything from intense security after 9/11 to generating international and local support after the scandal."

Huntsman, who had been mentioned as a possible leader of the Olympics, had already served as U.S. ambassador to Singapore and negotiated trade agreements for the United States in Asia and Africa before being elected Utah's governor.

He stepped down soon after the start of his second term to become Democratic President Barack Obama's U.S. ambassador to China, a post he held until earlier this year, when he returned to a new home in Washington, D.C., and jumped into his first presidential race.

Huntsman's supporters say he's different than a typical CEO.

"He is a heck of a lot nicer," said longtime friend Lew Cramer, head of Utah's World Trade Center. "He has a longer view. He has a vision for a decade from now, two decades" — well beyond a CEO's focus on the most recent bottom line.

Cramer called Huntsman "a real consensus builder. He's very supportive of his employees. He seeks their input. … He's not necessarily 'rough and tumble' in a staff-meeting conversation. He's thoughtful and he's gracious."

Those traits build loyalty among his associates, Cramer said.

"We'd go through hell with an open can of gasoline for him," he said. "He's the kind of person I want to follow."

Cramer, who has met with a number of international officials in his role attracting economic development to the state, said Huntsman stands out for his knowledge of world affairs.

"There's no smarter diplomat in the Republican Party than Jon Huntsman," Cramer said.

Diplomat, though, isn't usually a description that comes to mind when choosing a president, said Matthew Wilson, a professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas who specializes in religion and politics.

"The presidency is an executive position," Wilson said. "Most people see that as a CEO rather than a diplomat. The president is the nation's chief executive, so in that sense, there's a more natural transition from a corporate leadership model to the presidency than there is from a diplomacy model."

A president is bombarded by so many voices clamoring to be heard, he said, it can be difficult to even listen to all of them, let alone take the time to work through their differences as a diplomat would do.

"If the president truly does try to reach a broad consensus of everyone, he can be paralyzed into inaction," Wilson said. "That's one of the pitfalls of the diplomacy model."

Voters, he said, appreciated former President George W. Bush's declaration that he was the nation's "decider," and have criticized Obama for not taking more decisive action on some issues.

Romney is showcasing his corporate leadership skills on the campaign trail. "His experience in the private sector, in business, marks him," Wilson said. "Romney obviously has very wide recognition."

But he said the country's voters know little about Huntsman.

"Quite honestly, I think the national perception of Jon Huntsman is, 'Oh, he's the other Mormon out there.' That's about as deep as the knowledge goes," Wilson said.

Huntsman's service as U.S. ambassador to China under Obama doesn't mean much to voters, he said, because it doesn't communicate any particular view or ideology — just experience as a diplomat.

"That's a line on his resume, which is good. But again, if you were to try to say what's Jon Huntsman's signature issue or Jon Huntsman's new and bold proposal, I'm not sure most people could come up with anything."

Valentine suggested Romney and Huntsman have something to learn from each other.

"If I had to advise Romney, I'd say, 'Romney, you have to make sure you have consensus building,' " Valentine said. "If I had to advise Huntsman, I'd say, 'You have to look more like you're making decisions' … rather than building consensus."

Jon Huntsman

Age: 51

Political experience: Elected governor of Utah 2004, re-elected 2008

Professional experience: Huntsman Chemical executive, board vice-chairman and board member; U.S. Commerce Department deputy assistant secretary; U.S. ambassador to Singapore; U.S. trade ambassador to Asia and Africa; U.S. ambassador to China

Mitt Romney

Age: 64

Political experience: Ran unsuccessfully in 1994 for Massachusetts U.S. Senate seat held by Ted Kennedy; elected governor of Massachusetts 2002

Professional experience: Bain & Co. consultant and CEO; founder of Bain Capital, a private investment firm that started and re-tooled companies including Staples and Domino's Pizza; Salt Lake Organizing Committee CEO

Email: lisa@desnews.com. Twitter: dnewspolitics

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