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Politico: Romney and Huntsman in Epic Fight to be ‘King of the Mormons’

From Matt Canham and Thomas Burr writing at Politico Magazine: 

It was his first chance to sell himself as a presidential candidate, and Mitt Romney was determined to make it memorable. The Massachusetts governor stood before the 2006 Southern Republican Leadership Conference, and began to sing.

“Born on a mountaintop in Tennessee, greenest state in the land of the free. Doc-torrr, Doctor Bill Frist, king of the wild frontier.”
Other audiences might have cringed, but the Memphis crowd chuckled at the tepid joke comparing hometown favorite Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist, a physician, to Davy Crockett.

They liked him, and the next day, Romney, a Mormon, surprisingly came in second in the early straw poll of southern conservatives, who largely distrust members of that Utah-based faith. Romney acolytes went wild, and, 1,500 miles away, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman cheered with them. He sent Romney a handwritten note: “Mitt, well done in Memphis! You made us all very proud. It was just a hint of what is to come! Respectfully, Jon.”

Just four months later, the relationship between the Romney and Huntsman clans, the biggest names in Mormon politics, would be in tatters—a sudden collapse made even more stunning when considering the long ties between the families. While Huntsman had only first met Romney while running for governor in 2004, they are distantly related through Mormon pioneers. Their fathers—Jon Huntsman Sr. and George Romney—were friends and wildly successful business leaders. Huntsman’s mother had shared a college dorm room with Romney’s sister. And to top it all off, Huntsman Sr. was a big financial backer of Mitt’s previous campaigns.

So what happened? In the run up to 2008, Jon Huntsman Jr. wanted to be a player in national politics, and Mitt Romney all but patted him on the head and urged him to sit on the bench. Three years later, the specter of the next presidential election would fan smoldering resentment into flaming disgust in full view of the political world. Huntsman, then ambassador to China under President Barack Obama, left his dream job for his own White House run against Romney, whom he considered an exceptionally weak front-runner. Romney, for his part, saw Huntsman as a political opportunist he would relish crushing.

Members of both families deny a feud exists and instead offer polite, politically correct compliments about their counterparts. Behind the facade, though, lie two political tribes that have grown to dislike and distrust one another.

Read the full story here.

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