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Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: What will the nation do with two Mormons in race for president?

Published: Thursday, Aug. 27 2015 1:42 p.m. MDT

Editorial () Editorial ()

The national media is abuzz with the prospect of Mormon vs. Mormon in the 2012 presidential race. The speculation raises some interesting questions:

Will Jon Huntsman Jr. really get in the presidential race?

Webb: Some insightful insiders think Huntsman is actually going to run for the U.S. Senate against Orrin Hatch to set himself up for a 2016 presidential race (following the Obama model). It does appear rather disloyal for Huntsman to quit as ambassador to China and then run against the president who appointed him.

Another theory is that Huntsman is either making a vice-presidential play, or he is assuming that winning the presidency requires a two-cycle effort. Would a GOP frontrunner select a VP from a small Western Republican state? Huntsman could balance the ticket of a strong conservative who needs a more moderate running mate. He could provide the foreign affairs expertise that a ticket needs. If he did end up on a ticket and he dispatches himself well, win or lose he sets himself up for 2016. And if his ticket wins, he's plenty young enough to serve as VP and then go for the big prize. If he doesn't join a ticket, running now is still a good idea, paving the way for 2016. Mitt Romney, for example, will be a stronger candidate this cycle, having gone through the experience in 2008.

Pignanelli: "Ambition ... forgets the obligations of gratitude." — Sallust Huntsman is in a race for some position. When he returns from China this May, expect him to kickstart his exploratory committee, travel to the various hamlets in the caucus states and harumph through all the cable shows. He may even participate in early GOP presidential debates. By Fall 2011, he is likely to bow out and support a leading contender. This places him in contention for VP/Secretary of State with the hopeful nominee.

Yet, the recent rumors of his courting of Utah legislators is leading to rampant speculation. He may be using the national media attention to strengthen his position for a run for U.S. Senate against Hatch. Some predict he will file as an Independent in the event an unknown tea party challenger beats Hatch in the convention, leaving the field wide open.

Huntsman is a moderate in an era when arch-conservatives are ascendant. Does he really think he can win?

Pignanelli: When Huntsman announced his intentions to leave the ambassadorship — dropping hints of a run against Obama, politicos were amazed at his audacity. Many commented that since Huntsman could not survive a Utah GOP convention, he would be thrashed in a national contest. But in short time, the brilliance — albeit callousness — in the style of his departure became clear. A simple announcement of his retirement would have been a brief mention in the papers. The hint of a plot against Obama guarantees press attention for months. This media coverage allows him to explore the opportunities of creating a base of moderate Republicans for a successful campaign. It's a longshot, but it's still a shot.

Webb: If he is making a serious bid for the presidency, Huntsman has to be betting that the political climate will be dramatically different in 2012 than it was in 2010. That's certainly possible. The political tide turns swiftly these days. If the climate is similar to 2010, with the conservative base of the party in firm control of the nominating apparatus, Huntsman doesn't have a chance. But if Washington continues in gridlock and Republicans in the House are framed as overly ideological, mean and petty, then perhaps the electorate will be looking for a centrist who can bring both sides together to tackle the big problems facing the country. But that's a big bet.

What will it mean to have two Mormons with ties to Utah competing on the national stage?

Webb: It actually takes some pressure off Romney to have another Mormon candidate. If two of the top-tier candidates for president are Mormons, then perhaps they aren't so weird after all. It's possible that Huntsman may try to distance himself somewhat from the church, but that won't help him with evangelical Christians or other conservatives. No matter what sort of Mormon he is, he's still a Mormon. Mormons themselves are going to support Romney over Huntsman. Among Mormons, Romney is still a larger-than-life figure with a commanding presence, while Huntsman was a good, popular governor but doesn't have Romney's star power. In a recent survey commissioned by the Exoro Group, Romney was favored over Huntsman 62-18 percent among very active Utah Mormons and 65-16 percent among Republicans. Big numbers for Romney. If that's the case in Utah, then it's likely even more pronounced among Mormons elsewhere in the country.

Pignanelli: Huntsman is Diet-Romney: an affluent, attractive, articulate Mormon governor — but without the heavy baggage. With two Mormons in the race, the press will once again highlight religion and politics. These LDS candidates will need to develop a sound strategy. Romney in 2008 dodged and weaved in response to questions regarding his faith. This left many Republican caucus and primary voters uncomfortable with Romney, and kept the silly religious question alive. Although anathema to the GOP, Harry Reid is the best guide to his fellow Mormons (and any religious candidate). He is proud to be a Mormon and never squirms in defense of his faith. This instills confidence with others and why there is never a question about his religion. A similar tactic by Huntsman and Romney will help to end this artificial controversy.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and a Deseret News managing editor. E-mail: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. E-mail: frankp@xmission.com

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