The Manchurian Candidate

Ambassador Jon Huntsman at his new home in Washington, D.C. Charles Ommanney / Getty Images for Newsweek

The Huntsmans' new home in the posh D.C. neighborhood of Kalorama is the prototype of pricey Washington real estate: a tall, boxy structure defined by red brick and right angles. Last spring, Bravo used the space to film its reality show Top Chef: Washington, D.C., but on a Sunday morning in mid-December, the spacious rooms on the first floor were largely unfurnished. "We've been living out of boxes for the last two years," says Jon Huntsman Jr., who resigned the Utah governorship in 2009 to become U.S. ambassador to China. "We're just now unpacking things we didn't even remember we had. It's like Christmas."

The federal-style house attracted a small wave of Utah media attention last fall when Washingtonian magazine first noted the Huntsmans' $3.6 million purchase on its real-estate page. It was just the sort of trivial Beltway gossip that lends itself to breathless interpretation by local political reporters, and both Salt Lake City dailies dutifully ran articles speculating that the hometown hero might soon return to the States gunning for higher office. It wasn't a ridiculous notion. The moderate Republican had once been considered a rising star in the GOP and a likely 2012 contender, with David Plouffe, Barack Obama's campaign mastermind, even identifying Huntsman as the only Republican who made him "a wee bit queasy" about the next race. But speculation ended abruptly in 2009 when Obama tapped Huntsman for the ambassadorship. National pundits called the appointment a shrewd move by the White House to sideline a potential rival, and then promptly forgot about him—which is probably why last fall's Beehive State buzz was drowned out on the national stage by the noise of the midterms.

Now, it appears, the ambassador is ready to make some noise of his own. Sitting in the echo-y living room of his new Washington home, Huntsman, a tall, lean man with silver hair and impeccable posture, pauses only briefly when faced with the question of presidential aspirations. "You know, I'm really focused on what we're doing in our current position," he says. "But we won't do this forever, and I think we may have one final run left in our bones." Asked whether he is prepared to rule out a run in 2012 (since it would require him to campaign against his current boss), he declines to comment.

The winking response—about as close to a hat-in-ring announcement as you'll get from a sitting member of the incumbent's administration—could just be a hollow cry for attention. But sources close to Huntsman (who requested anonymity to speak freely without his permission) say that during his December trip to the U.S., he met with several former political advisers in Washington and Salt Lake City to discuss a potential campaign. "I'm not saying he's running," says one supporter who has worked with him in the past. "But we're a fire squad; if he says the word, we can get things going fast." What's more, Huntsman tells NEWSWEEK that when he accepted the ambassadorial appointment, he promised his family they would "come up for air" sometime in 2010 to decide how much longer they would stay in Beijing. "I'm not announcing anything at all," he says. But he sure seems to be hinting.

The cable-news crowd will undoubtedly scoff at Huntsman's prospects in a Republican primary. After a right-wing resurgence flooded Congress with Tea Party Republicans, the field doesn't appear particularly inviting to a moderate Obama appointee. But an increasingly vocal segment of the GOP is worried that the conservative populism of 2010 is distracting the party from its more pressing priorities. "We may be confusing a clearing in the forest for being out of the woods," says Republican strategist John Weaver, who notes young voters' disapproval of some of the party's social agenda. "There is a ticking demographic time bomb working against us, and if we don't correct that problem very soon, we could wind up back where we were four years ago." What the party needs now, argue supporters like Weaver, is a leader who can negotiate a treaty of sorts between the right-wing base and forward-thinking moderates. The GOP, in other words, needs an ambassador.

If Huntsman's appointment really was an act of political self-interest by Obama's team, the effort has proved remarkably successful so far. Since he left for Beijing, the national media haven't just moved Huntsman to second string in the 2012 speculation game; they've dropped him from the roster entirely. Of the half-dozen Republican strategists and pundits contacted by NEWSWEEK in recent weeks, not one listed him as a viable candidate in the upcoming race.

The rationale is twofold: as a member of President Obama's administration, Huntsman runs the risk of appearing ungrateful, or even disloyal, if he decides to run; and as a Mormon with ties to Utah, he would face tough competition from likely GOP candidate Mitt Romney as he milks their overlapping networks for donors and campaign talent. But neither obstacle is insurmountable. A Republican-primary candidate could do worse than publicly slighting the Obama White House. And Huntsman wouldn't have much trouble financing the first leg of a presidential campaign on his own: his father, whose company invented the "clamshell" container for McDonald's to package its Big Macs, is a billionaire.

Setting those potential pitfalls aside, then, the big red elephant in the room remains: would the Republican base actually vote for someone like Huntsman?

As ambassador, he refuses to wade into the high-profile political fights of the day, but at first glance, Huntsman's résumé seems well tailored to Tea Party ideals. While serving as governor of Utah, he pursued an aggressively pro-business agenda—including targeted tax cuts and foreign-trade missions—that helped create the nation's second-fastest-growing economy over the last five years. And his current post provides him with the street cred of a fully converted deficit hawk. After all, who could preach more passionately on the dangers of fiscal recklessness than the U.S. ambassador to China?

But a closer look at his record reveals a nuanced approach to Republican politics. Shortly after Obama was swept into office in a tidal wave of Democratic victories, the popular governor began articulating a new national vision for the GOP, one designed to appeal to all time zones. Warning that the party was losing young voters, he argued that Republicans would need to tack to the middle on three hot-button issues if they were to maintain national relevance: immigration, gay rights, and the environment.

Today that strategy might seem out of step with recent GOP victories, but Weaver and many of his fellow moderates believe Huntsman is uniquely qualified to unify competing factions on the right and usher in a new era for the Republican Party. The portrait his most ardent fans paint is one of a natural-born consensus builder, capable of guiding bullheaded stakeholders through sensitive negotiations—and coming out on top. "He's an inclusive person, which, without getting into personalities within our party, unfortunately is a rare commodity," says Weaver, who has advised Huntsman on his political career in the past. "I'm a firm believer that our next great Republican president will be a conservative problem-solver. And to be a problem-solver you have to be inclusive about getting things done."

Nowhere has Huntsman proved his capacity as a partisan peace broker more convincingly than at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Not long before joining the Obama administration, he had been stumping for Sen. John McCain on the campaign trail, and one embassy insider, who requested anonymity to comment on internal affairs, says the appointment initially worried some of his colleagues. "There were a lot of question marks about our policy in general and to what extent [Huntsman] would be able to work within the department to effect those goals," he says. But the newly minted ambassador confronted the concerns on day one by gathering staffers and assuring them that his allegiance would be to U.S. policy initiatives and not the GOP. Two years later, Huntsman has developed enormous loyalty among his staff. "Anyone who's able to navigate those political waters and emerge not only intact but as a deeply respected voice speaks to a level of skill that few of us have ever seen before," says the embassy worker.

The skill has translated to foreign diplomacy as well, particularly in the area of international intellectual-property rights. By carefully stringing together various groups that aren't natural allies—including Chinese businesspeople, U.S. entrepreneurs, and government officials from both countries—Huntsman is slowly convincing Beijing that it's in everyone's best interests to prevent local manufacturers from selling patented products like knockoff iPads. The question is far from resolved, but, the embassy insider says, "if we turn the corner on this, it will be because of the work Ambassador Huntsman has done."

People who have worked closely with him attribute these successes, in part, to his self-deprecating style and modest temperament. Indeed, throughout his interview with NEWSWEEK, Huntsman seemed averse to taking credit for accomplishments, frequently substituting an ambiguous "we" where an "I" would have been more appropriate. The appearance of modesty—calculated or not—has its political advantages. "When politicians use the most underutilized part of the human anatomy, the ear, interesting things happen," he says. "People talk, and they give you good ideas. Typically, politicians don't shut up long enough to actually hear others speak their minds."

Contrived as it may sound—Huntsman has used versions of the "underutilized ear" talking point before—this philosophy stands in stark contrast with the angry, crusading style of politics espoused by many of the leading Republican presidential hopefuls. But supporters say the success of his bridge-building approach speaks for itself. As governor of the reddest state in the Union, Huntsman championed unpopular gay-rights legislation, updated the state's culturally entrenched liquor laws, publicly endorsed cap-and-trade—and still left office with approval ratings above 80 percent. His supporters within the GOP hope he can do the same thing at the national level.

Spending two years in China has undoubtedly colored Huntsman's approach to policy—he discusses at length the urgent need for the U.S. to "deleverage" its economy by exercising fiscal restraint—but it has also influenced his perspective of the domestic political process in general. "When I turn on TV and watch the partisan food fight and the endless gabfest, somewhere deep inside I say, 'Hallelujah,'?" he says. "In China, they don't have any of that, and it comes at a great cost."

Still, Huntsman believes a more civil politics can be achieved in Washington if the right approach is taken—a message his boss mastered in the 2008 campaign. In fact, the president and his envoy in Beijing are alike in many regards: they share an appreciation for wonky policy discussion, they demonstrate similar impatience with inflexible ideologues, and they have both, at times, been heralded as visionaries within their respective parties. But they also differ in one important aspect: Obama has already learned (albeit the hard way) that good faith isn't a given when you're negotiating in Washington.

For his part, Huntsman is eager not to appear too idealistic. "You remember that diplomats are pretty much trained as warriors," he says. "I mean, you take a situation up to the brink of having to call in the military. It isn't just making nice with people; it's getting stuff done." With little experience in the national political arena, it's impossible to know what, exactly, Huntsman is capable of getting done. But voters may get a chance to find out sooner than anybody—especially the White House—expected.