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Jon Huntsman - High School Dropout, Ambassador, US Presidential Candidate

Suzanne Presto

January 14, 2012

In the crowded race for the Republican presidential nomination, Jon Huntsman is a bit unconventional.

At a recent televised ABC News debate, the former governor of Utah expressed his exasperation with Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney's position about U.S.-China relations.

"He doesn't quite understand the situation," said Huntsman.

It was unusual because Huntsman first delivered the rebuke in Mandarin Chinese.

Life Overseas

Huntsman also speaks Taiwanese. They are languages the candidate, a Mormon, learned while on a two-year religious mission to Taiwan more than three decades ago. Since then, Huntsman has returned to Asia on diplomatic missions. He's been ambassador to Singapore, as well as a U.S. trade ambassador.

Most recently, Huntsman served as ambassador to China for President Barack Obama.

Back in 2009, when President Barack Obama announced the appointment, he called Huntsman "the kind of leader who always puts country ahead of party."

Now that Huntsman is campaigning for president, Obama's praise is being used against the candidate.

Republican Rivals

Romney criticized Huntsman during the ABC News debate in New Hampshire earlier this month.

"I'm sorry, Governor, you were, the last two years, implementing the policies of this administration in China," said Romney. "The rest of us on this stage were doing our best to get Republicans elected across the country and stop the policies of this president from being put forward."

The audience cheered when Huntsman fired back a day later at the NBC News/Facebook debate.

"He [Romney] criticized me - while he was out raising money - for serving my country in China," Huntsman rebutted. "Yes, under a Democrat. Like my two sons are doing in the United States Navy. They're not asking what political affiliation the president is. I want to be very clear with the people here in New Hampshire and this country: I will always put my country first."

"Country first" is a rallying cry among his supporters.

Trailing, On The Trail

Huntsman is trailing his fellow Republican candidates, despite his third place finish in the New Hampshire primary. As of January 13, he is polling in the low single digits.

Jennifer Lawless, a professor at American University in Washington, explains why few voters have rallied around the candidate.

"Jon Huntsman is a new entity and people just haven't gotten to know him that well, which makes it difficult to raise money, which makes it difficult to get out there and get people to know you," says Lawless, author of the new book "Becoming A Candidate: Political Ambition and the Decision to Run for Office."

Huntsman is a 51-year-old father of seven, including daughters he adopted from China and India. He is a twice-elected governor of the conservative state of Utah, yet he believes in civil unions for homosexual couples. He has served as a governor and a diplomat, and he has also worked for his family's multi-billion-dollar chemical corporation. He graduated from an elite university, but only after he dropped out of high school to play keyboards in a band.

American University's Lawless said even voters who are somewhat familiar with Huntsman have not quite figured him out.

"It's difficult for voters to differentiate him from Mitt Romney and that's not only because they're both good-looking former governors," she explains. "It's because they're both perceived as far more moderate than they actually are."

And, in an age of partisanship, Huntsman's work for a Democratic administration helps and hinders his campaign to run against his former boss, President Obama.

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