SALT LAKE CITY — Former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. told "Good Morning America" Friday he is Mormon, describing the faith as "a very diverse and heterogeneous cross-section of people."
Huntsman was responding to a question about whether he was a practicing Mormon posed by the ABC morning program's host George Stephanopoulos on behalf of a Salt Lake City viewer.
"I believe in God. I'm a good Christian. I'm very proud of my Mormon heritage. I am Mormon," Huntsman, a likely GOP presidential candidate, said, according to an ABC News transcript.
"Today, there are 13 million Mormons. It's a very diverse and heterogeneous cross-section of people. And you're going to find a lot of different attitudes and a lot of different opinions in that 13 million."
In his first network television interview since returning late last month from Beijing where he served as U.S. ambassador to China, Huntsman said he doesn't believe his religion will be an issue in the campaign.
Voters want someone focused "laser-like on jobs and keeping this economy moving forward in ways that will maintain our preeminence in the world," Huntsman said. "I think everything else that people like to talk about, in many cases, are less relevant. In fact, some are sideshows."
Religion was barely mentioned by voters Friday as Huntsman traveled across New Hampshire accompanied by a pack of national press, said Peter Spaulding, his top adviser in the Granite State.
"I don't think religion has ever been a major issue here," Spaulding said. "New Hampshire is pretty tolerant."
Huntsman, who stopped at a diner, spoke at a VFW hall and sat down for interviews with New Hampshire's largest newspaper and a TV station, is scheduled to give a commencement address Saturday at Southern New Hampshire University.
Voters in New Hampshire may not be interested in Huntsman's faith, but others elsewhere will be.
"Mormonism is an absolute catnip for national media. They can't get enough of it," Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics and an adviser to another LDS contender for the White House, Mitt Romney.
"I think Mormon candidates probably feel like it's not completely fair," Jowers said. "Most other people can get away with one more superficial answer. But that's the world Mitt Romney faced in 2008 and is still facing. That's what Huntsman will face going forward."
Romney ran into trouble in the last election with evangelical conservatives who don't view Mormons as fellow Christians. The former Utah Olympic leader responded by embracing his Mormon faith in a major speech on religion in Texas. "My faith is the faith of my fathers," Romney said then. "I will be true to them and to my beliefs."
CNN's John King raised the issue in an interview with Huntsman later Friday, asking how he would answer questions raised about his faith by those evangelical Christians who see the church as a cult.
Huntsman told King, "People are worried about the real issues and less about someone's heritage or background," according to a transcript released by CNN.
Pressed, he said he would tell them, "I believe in God. I'm a good Christian. I — I'm proud of my roots. You have to take me for what I am and make a decision based upon that. Take a look at my family, take a look at my values."
Huntsman's declaration he's Mormon comes a week after an interview in Time magazine, where he said it was "tough to define" whether he still belonged to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
A spokesman for his "campaign in waiting" quickly issued a statement after the Time interview was posted online last Thursday, saying Huntsman "remains a member of the church and proud to be part of the fabric of a large, vibrant faith."
The issue of whether Huntsman was attempting to distance himself from his faith to avoid the problems faced by Romney, has attracted plenty of attention in Utah.
"It sounds like he's still trying to distance himself from any Mormon orthodoxy," said Matthew Wilson, a professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas who specializes in religion and politics. "He clearly seems to be trying to hold the church at arms length."
Wilson said Huntsman's latest comments won't play well with many GOP primary voters, because he'll not just be seen as less Mormon, but also as less religious. "Secularism isn't going to do him any more good than Mormonism," Wilson said.
Quin Monson, associate director of Brigham Young University's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said Utahns shouldn't take Huntsman's statements so personally.
"He's just trying to be seen in a different light," Monson said. "I don't think we're viewed as sort of average America."
Huntsman has never been "the home-grown Utah boy, 100 percent," Monson said. "He's always kind of had one foot in and one foot out," he said, noting Huntsman, who now lives in Washington, D.C., left the state on a number of occasions, to attend college in Pennsylvania and serve previous GOP administrations.
"He has those experiences. He is broader than Utah," Monson said. "He always has been."
Friday, Politico posted an article suggesting Huntsman also chose Orlando, Fla., as the site of his likely presidential campaign headquarters to put some distance between himself and the "Mormon establishment."
While Florida might make sense politically, the online political news source said "the location — and some recent remarks about his faith — have combined to produce a sharp reaction from the Mormon establishment, solidifying the impression for many of the former governor's constituents that he plans to keep his distance in more ways than one."
A transcript of the interview follows below.
JOHN KING, HOST, "JOHN KING USA": Let me ask you to start with, as people get to know you, if you want to be the next president of the United States, you just worked for the current president of the United States. Why would you be a better president than Barack Obama?
JON HUNTSMAN (R), FORMER UTAH GOVERNOR: I worked with three other presidents of the United States. I think we're at a -- at a critical inflection point in the nation's history. And I think the discussion that will need to take place, not in many years, but over the next couple of years, will be about jobs and economic revitalization. I've lived in the business world. I've been a governor of a state that was a leading economic state in the country. I think I understand the environment that needs to be created for jobs and for an industrial revolution and for future prosperity.
KING: Is there something he doesn't understand?
HUNTSMAN: Well, I think it's a different world view. It's an orientation. It's what you've collected during your life of experiences. Everybody has a different worldview. That doesn't mean somebody is -- is better than the next guy, it just means you have a different approach to problem-solving and doing business.
KING: I've been at this a while and I don't remember any Republican running for the nomination who was on record saying the current Democratic president has brilliant analysis of world events and said he was honored to work with Hillary Clinton.
Do you worry about that? How do you get -- how do you get conservative Republicans to think I want this guy as my guy?
HUNTSMAN: Well, occasionally you write thank you notes, which I think is, for a lot of people, an important tradition. I also believe in civility. I believe that we ought to have a civil discourse in this country. You're -- and you're not going to agree with people 100 percent of the time, but when they succeed and do things that are good, you can compliment them on it. I think we need to come together more on the issues that really do matter. I believe in civility and I believe in complimenting people when they do a good job.
KING: You have a record as governor. You can come to this state, where they don't like taxes and say I cut taxes. So you were just talking inside about your health care plan.
What would you say to the conservative who says you're for civil unions, therefore you must be for gay marriage or greater gay rights than I'm for?
HUNTSMAN: Well, I'm for civil unions. I believe in traditional marriage. But I think subordinate to that, we don't do an adequate job when it comes to equality and fairness. And I'm going to say take a look at my total record. And like every person who's been elected to office and tried to do things, some things you'll like, some things you won't.
On balance, we hope you like us. But if you don't, there are always other alternatives.
KING: You were in the forefront of some governors some time ago saying you need either cap and trade, a cap on carbon emissions or some kind of a carbon tax. And now you say well, let's be careful because of the sluggish economy.
KING: What's to stop somebody from saying pretty convenient, now you're running in the Republican primaries and you're flip-flopping?
HUNTSMAN: Well, every governor was having that same conversation. Practically every CEO was having that same conversation. A lot of the ideas we talked about came from some of the leading CEOs, some of the
people who are driving the reality of these policies. Every governor was having this conversation.
The economy fell through the floor and with it the need to refocus on job creation, the need to refocus on getting back on our feet and probably a recognition about costs that work their way through the system and a need to, first and foremost, create jobs and get us back on our feet.
KING: But do you believe that climate change is caused, at least in part, by human behavior?
HUNTSMAN: Well, I think the science of the community would -- would suggest that to be the case. And I think in -- in -- in a -- in a world like we have, we should be deferring to the scientific community and not the political community to make decisions that are best left in the hands of scientists.
KING: Does that mean if you had a stronger economy, a President Huntsman would come back to cap and trade or a carbon tax or some variation of that?
HUNTSMAN: I'm here to tell you that it -- it isn't going to be -- it isn't going to be a status quo approach to problem-solving. Over the next few years, we're going to see whatever approach to putting a value on carbon change repeatedly. Look at the -- at last many years. It's already changed and morphed into new things.
So by the time that, you know, in the years to come, people want to have this conversation in a serious way, because people care about their environment, they care about air quality, I think we're going to face a whole lot more in the way of options other than just a tax on carbon and a cap and trade proposal.
KING: One of your rivals or likely rivals -- you haven't put both feet in just yet -- Newt Gingrich got in a little travel first. He described the Paul Ryan plan as radical on Medicare. Then he tried to pull it back. He called and apologized.
You, just inside, you know, talked about it as an option, as -- as a proposal, you need options on the table. Is that your preferred approach, to turn Medicare into, essentially, a voucher program?
Or would you like to do it differently?
HUNTSMAN: I think that's a very good approach. I believe that younger people who are more mobile and more plugged in, they're going to want a whole lot more options than we have on the table now. Some of them are going to want to cash out, perhaps, and do whatever with their money that -- that they think is best suited for their lifestyle. And I think what we need to do is, first of all, explore all of the many options and realize that for the younger than 55 generation, that we're going to have to have more as opposed to less. And I think Paul Ryan has gone some distance in putting some options on the table that are real, that I think are viable.
KING: Governor Romney ran into some of this in the last campaign in places like South Carolina. I know it's a state that's important to you. However, a lot of Evangelical Christians had a problem with a Mormon.
They didn't understand it. Some of them, when you talk to them, they say somehow they think it's a cult.
What would you say to somebody who asked you that question?
HUNTSMAN: I'd say that we have real issues to talk about, jobs and economic expansion. We're breaking barriers in this country all the time. And when people say that because you come from a certain background that you're not able to get from Point A to Point B, I say nonsense. That's not part of the American tradition. We're breaking barriers all the time. We're going to continue breaking barriers all the time. But I think first and foremost, people are worried about the real issues and less about someone's heritage or background.
KING: What would you say to their leaders, some leaders in the Evangelical Church that push that limit? What would you say to them?
HUNTSMAN: Well, I -- I would say I believe in God. I'm a good Christian. I -- I'm proud of my roots. You have to take me for what I am and make a decision based upon that. Take a look at my family, take a look at my values. Take a look at my values.
KING: Let me ask you, lastly, just inside there, you were talking about you would not have injected the United States in any way, is that fair to say, in Libya, not even in a support role to a NATO operation, you think it was the wrong idea?
HUNTSMAN: I think supporting freedom movements, those who want assistance with institution building, those who want assistance in organizing around their cause, so long as they are consistent with our values and our ideals, it's fanning liberty, democracy and promoting human rights, then I think there's -- there is a role that we can play.
Having boots on the ground and no real exit strategy and not being able to tell the American people what it's going to cost, first and foremost, or whether or not it's core to our national security...
KING: But there are no boots on the ground in Libya. The president said flatly from the beginning, no way to that.
HUNTSMAN: Well, when you create a no-fly zone and when you -- when you're in to that extent, that's -- that's an expense. That's a risk. And we have to say if we're going to go that far, is it core to our national security interests?
KING: Would you tell the prime minister of Israel, go into talks with the Palestinians and start with the premise that you start with the 1967 borders?
HUNTSMAN: I would say you know best how to conduct this negotiation. It has gone on for a very long time and likely will continue going on a very long time. We can't force these issues. We have to make sure that security, economic development, settlements, regional security, the changing nature of the Middle East that we couldn't even have conceived of six months ago, that all of that is taken into proper consideration at the negotiating table. And that's best left up to both the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government.
KING: So the U.S. should pull back, not get as involved?
President Clinton had his hands on, President Bush, at the end, tried to get hands on...
HUNTSMAN: There's a role for us to play, but I think when we start defining, you know, pre-'67 War borders, we're probably preempting discussions that may get them there eventually and probably will eventually. But they have to take it at their pace and they have to make sure that it's cued up with all of the other issues that matter, as well.
KING: Let me close by just asking you what's your sense -- you've been here a couple of days. We all assume you're running.
HUNTSMAN: We've got a few more weeks left to go. I want to make sure that at the end, that it's a decision made by our family, they feel good about what they have seen, what they have experienced and that they're a little more informed when they ultimately say, you know, I think we're ready to do it.
KING: Governor, appreciate your time.
HUNTSMAN: Thanks, John.
KING: Thank you.
THIS IS A RUSH FDCH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
Contributing: Richard Piatt