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Running for Grown-up

Jon Hunstman Jr. at a Fourth of July parade in Amherst, New Hampshire.  

It’s conceivable, to be sure, that the tea party and the populist passions it represents, so evident and evidently deleterious in the debate over the federal debt ceiling, will reduce to rubble the candidacies of both Romney and Huntsman. But history tells us not to bet on it. Despite the sway of various grassroots conservative movements, the GOP has reliably chosen its nominees from its Establishment wing, valuing electability over doctrinal purity. For Romney and Huntsman, this time-tested tendency should be a cause for comfort and for hope, respectively. The two men are, after all, the most Establishmentarian candidates in the field, and also the most likely to forge candidacies capable of winning in a general election. And though Huntsman is now routinely written off as a cipher, let’s not forget the last unconventional, slow-starting, non-table-pounding candidate of whom something similar was said: Barack Obama.

Huntsman and Romney may have another reason for optimism, too—though the idea may strike you, dear reader, as fanciful, delusional, or the product of a head full of psilocybin. Maybe after the abject and dangerous dysfunctionalism on display in Washington this summer, Republican voters will conclude that the moment has arrived to put away childish (and lunatic) things. That, hey, ya know, with Congress now a nuthouse, having a nominee in full possession of his faculties—an actual, sane adult—might not be the worst idea.

The clowns in orange wigs, the guy in the gopher costume, and the dude on stilts dressed as Uncle Sam have already ambled down Boston Post Road when the main sideshow at the Amherst, New Hampshire, Fourth of July parade takes place: Romney and Huntsman meeting face-to-face for the first time since the latter entered the presidential race. The candidates are here because they know that, for them, New Hampshire is the whole ball of wax. If Romney—who, as a part-time resident of the state and former governor of the state next door, is a quasi-favorite son—fails to win the primary, his candidacy is likely over. And if Huntsman is the one who knocks him off, he instantly becomes the party’s likely nominee.

As they prepare to start marching, Romney, 64, spies Hunstman, jogs over, clasps his hand, pats his shoulder—and then sticks in the shiv. “Welcome to New Hampshire!” he chirps, as if greeting a foreign tourist. “It’s not Beijing, but it’s lovely!” Huntsman, 51, mutters in reply, “The air is breathable.” Afterward, a reporter asks him about the colloquy. “It was a nice exchange,” Huntsman says. “A nice greeting, wishing each other luck, and being friends.”

The definition of friendship in politics is famously elastic, but it would take a heroic amount of stretching for the concept to encompass the Romney-Huntsman relationship, which is far more complex and combustible than being pals. Both former governors, both multimillionaires, both Mormons who served the church as missionaries, Romney and Huntsman have much in common. With their lean frames, chiseled features, ramrod postures, and salon-model hair, they look so much alike that you might think they were related, and you would be right. (They are distant cousins.) They are scions of what Richard Ostling, a co-author of Mormon America: The Power and the Promise, calls “two royal families in Mormonism”—two clans entwined for generations, once warmly but no longer.

The bonds stretch back to the founding of the church and the settling of the Salt Lake Valley. As the Washington Post recently reported, Parley Pratt, a contemporary of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith and a pioneer of the valley, was Huntsman’s great-great-great-­grandfather and Romney’s great-great-grandfather. Romney’s father, George, was a childhood friend of Huntsman’s maternal grandfather, David Haight, who later went on to be the mayor of Palo Alto and a high church official, and an adult friend of Jon Huntsman Sr. when both served in the Nixon administration.

The fathers were nearly as similar as the sons: both wealthy industrialists, devout servants of the church, and avatars of the frontier patrician style. George Romney was the more famous as the head of American Motors who became governor of Michigan. Huntsman Sr. kept a lower public profile but amassed a greater fortune, starting a packaging company that invented the clamshell container for the Big Mac and then building a chemical conglomerate; his expansive philanthropic efforts have made him one of the most influential figures in Utah. A near billionaire and bone-deep conservative, his pals include Dick Cheney and Glenn Beck, who calls Huntsman Sr. “the only man I have ever met that I believe has the character of George Washington.”

For all this shared history, however, Mitt and Jon Jr.—a generation apart, reared in different states—never even met until 2005. But that doesn’t mean their paths hadn’t crossed; quite the contrary.