Here’s Exactly What Jon Huntsman Said About Michele Bachmann

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Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

My cover story in this week’s magazine on the presidential candidacies of — and the deeply rooted, barely submerged, now-bubbling-to-the-surface rivalry betwixt — Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman stirred up a mini-controversy, which, naturally, I heartily approve of. The source of the commotion was a quote of Huntsman’s about Michele Bachmann, in which he said, “She makes for good copy — and good photography.”

Not surprisingly, Huntsman's comment has been criticized for attributing Bachmann's appeal mainly to her looks. And, equally unshockingly, Huntsman has been backpedaling away from his burst of candor as fast as his feet can pump. Asked about it on Tuesday by Fox News, Huntsman said, "Oh, listen, I was trying to compliment Representative Bachmann. Calling somebody photogenic — I wish we were all that photogenic. She’s an elected official, she’s doing a great job, and I have high regard for her.”

Then, yesterday, while Huntsman was campaigning in New Hampshire, the subject came up again — and he dragged me into it. “I told the same reporter who wrote that,” he said, “she is a strong, legitimate candidate,” adding that Bachmann has “been elected by her people. She's bringing a lot of important issues to the forefront. I have great respect for that.”

Which is kinda-sorta true, as far as it goes, which is to say, only so far. And since I’ve been asked repeatedly in the past few days about the context in which Huntsman coughed up the brief quote at issue here, I thought it might be helpful to provide the relevant portion of the interview transcript.

JHEIL: What do you think of Michele Bachmann as a potential nominee?

JHUNT: I think it’s too hypothetical. I don’t think she gets the nomination. I think it’s impossible for her to get the nomination. I don’t think she’s gonna be able to bring the numbers together within the Republican tent to get the nomination. She’s off in one corner of the party. I think she’s excited that corner of the party. There are some elements that the media find appealing.

JHEIL: Irresistible.

JHUNT: Irresistible. And why not? She makes for good copy. And good photography. So why not take it for all you can get? But I think that’s way too speculative.

JHEIL: But unlike you, she is red in tooth and claw in her attacks on Obama. Do you think that in itself is disqualifying? Is it dangerous for the Republican party to dabble in such attacks?

JHUNT: You know, campaigns are about letting a thousand flowers blossom — bloom. So everybody gets to speak their mind and approach it from whatever angle of attack, and she’s chosen her own angle of attack. I don’t think it’s saleable in the end. It will certainly light up and ignite a corner of the Republican party, but not enough to do what needs to be done to win the nomination. But that’s an extension of her right to free speech.

JHEIL: But do you think she’s a serious person who should be taken seriously?

JHUNT: She’s an elected official. She’s a member of Congress.

JHEIL: Well, there are a lot of lunatics in Congress.

JHUNT: Clearly she should be taken seriously. She’s an elected official and elected officials should be taken seriously.

So there you have it. Now, are those the words of a man who holds Bachmann in “high regard” and considers her a “strong” candidate for the presidency? Or do the phrases “off in one corner of the party,” “not saleable in the end,” and “impossible for her to get the nomination” suggest, perhaps, a somewhat less favorable assessment of his rival? And is there anything that suggests Huntsman was trying, as he claims, to compliment her?

I report. You decide.