It’s no exaggeration to say Jon Huntsman Jr. thought Wednesday’s third Republican presidential primary debate was a total waste of time.
“Let’s be honest,” he told me, before he’d even picked up the remote. “None of this matters.”
The 2012 Republican presidential candidate was never a big fan of televised debates to begin with — candidates are overly scripted, too restrained by time and rarely substantive. But in this year’s race, he views the debates as even more of an unnecessary formality: “Tonight, it’s going to be, who will be left standing?” Huntsman said. “Because whoever’s left standing could likely be Trump’s running-mate, before he moves off to prison, or wherever he goes.”
Call him a pessimist, or maybe a realist. Even so, as soon as the cameras panned to the five candidates onstage in Miami, Huntsman couldn’t help but turn up the volume and lean forward.
It’s been over a decade since he was on that stage. On Wednesday night, he watched the debate from his living room in Salt Lake City, alongside his wife Mary Kaye, a group of Deseret News photojournalists, and myself. I told him I wanted his candid responses to what he saw onscreen. He obliged, and then some.
It helped that a significant portion of the night centered on Huntsman’s biggest area of expertise. His 2012 run was sandwiched between stints as U.S. ambassador to Russia and China, the nation’s two largest geopolitical rivals. Thanks to the ongoing wars in Israel and Ukraine, foreign policy was the night’s central issue. With each answer the candidates gave, Huntsman couldn’t resist weighing in — nodding his head, rolling his eyes. During each commercial break, Huntsman filled in the gaps, sharing what they really should’ve said.
Huntsman liked much of what he saw. He told me, going in, that there were only “three people that really matter on that stage”: Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley and Tim Scott.
Haley won the night, he thought — she was strong on Israel, strong on abortion and reasonable on the deficit. Scott “speaks to your heart,” though he got “a little too over-the-top, a little too evangelical” toward the end.
On the others, Huntsman was more harsh. DeSantis looked tired — “like he’s having a colonoscopy live on television.” And he couldn’t seem to make up his mind on Vivek Ramaswamy. The entrepreneur “has an IQ of 150,” the smartest guy to run for president “in a long time.” At moments, he seems “professorial,” Huntsman said, or like a McKinsey consultant; at others, “he’s selling pillows at midnight on television.”
Huntsman didn’t wait long to unleash his critiques. The first question went to DeSantis: Why should you, and not Trump, be the Republican nominee?
DeSantis had barely opened his mouth before Huntsman began calling out all his pre-packaged topics. The elites … “Check.” Gas prices … “Check.” The open border … “Check.”
“He’s preloading his first answer with all of the catchphrases, and pretty soon he’ll be out of stuff to say,” Huntsman said. “It’s totally patronizing.”
When Ramaswamy dove into his first answer, Huntsman seemed to squint his eyes. Ramaswamy attacked the Republican National Committee and the media, calling out one of the moderators by name and calling her “corrupt.”
“He’s going full on populist, as opposed to the other two,” Huntsman said.
When Scott made his first appearance, Huntsman shook his head and turned to me. Scott campaigned with Huntsman in 2012; Huntsman has visited Scott’s church in South Carolina and played in his band. “He’s a genuine human,” Huntsman said, but Scott has been completely unable to gain momentum this cycle, hovering around 2% in national polls. “If Trump were not in, I think he’d be doing a lot better,” Huntsman said.
As the debate progressed, Huntsman noted the candidates forging clear brands for themselves: DeSantis, the problem-solving governor, who would cite his own successes in Florida in each answer; Ramaswamy, the populist revolutionary, who could crack jokes about DeSantis’ high-heels because “he’s in single digits and has nothing to lose”; Chris Christie, the respectful statesman, probably recognizing this is his final debate and wanting to “leave on a high note.”
The debate became more personal to Huntsman when it turned to Israel. Huntsman announced last month that his family’s foundation would “close its checkbook” to the University of Pennsylvania, his and his father’s alma mater, after the school’s “silence” following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel.
In the aftermath of the attack, Jewish students at Penn and other elite universities became targets of antisemitism. The moderators shared a question from Matthew Brooks, president of the Republican Jewish Coalition, who asked about the “dramatic rise of antisemitism” on college campuses. “What do you say to university presidents who have not met the moral clarity moment to not forcefully condemn Hamas terrorism?”
Huntsman rose his fist, in apparent celebration. “This is the most important topic of the night,” he said.
Ramaswamy chided the anti-Israel college protesters. Scott promised to cancel student visas for international students who participate in such protests. “This is a bit over-the-top,” Huntsman said. “It sounds fine to the ear, but in actual practice, it’s an impossibility.”
“The hard part is differentiating rhetoric — throw-away lines — from useful ideas that are actually implementable,” he continued. “And the ratio is about 90 to 10: 90% throw-away lines, and 10% things that you can actually work with.”
Then came Haley — calm, collected, firm. “The country is out of sorts,” she said.
“If the KKK were doing this, every college president would be up in arms,” she continued. “This is no different. You should be treating it exactly the same. Antisemitism is just as awful as racism.”
“That may have won her the night,” Huntsman said. “And it very well may win her the No. 2 slot (behind Trump).”
When the debate transitioned to Ukraine, Huntsman perked up. He was the ambassador to Russia from 2017 to 2019, performing the thankless job of negotiating relations between the Trump administration and a nation some have called America’s No. 1 geopolitical threat. When Scott danced around a question about further aid to Ukraine, choosing to hit Joe Biden for a lack of accountability, Huntsman slammed Scott for his “non-answer.”
“That could have been a home run,” he said.
As Ramaswamy and DeSantis doubled down on their isolationist foreign policy, saying the U.S. should cut its aid to Ukraine, Huntsman shook his head.
“You’ve got half the stage that is basically saying we should not commit to Ukraine, which is a real transition in Republican orthodoxy,” Huntsman said.
I asked Huntsman which candidate on stage would scare Vladimir Putin the most. “Well, Putin — similar to Xi Jinping — has already determined that we’re in terminal decline,” he said. “So it doesn’t matter who’s president; the United States is done, based on our financial imbalances and social divisions, is how he would see it.”
When Haley said the U.S. “needs to modernize our military,” Huntsman smiled. “I could agree with that!” he said. But then DeSantis began hammering Haley for China’s economic development in her state. “This is just nonsense. This is a complete waste of people’s time,” Huntsman groaned.
When Scott was asked what he would do to deter China from invading Taiwan, Huntsman again leaned in. “Now we’re going a level deeper.” Then Scott’s answer floated to the Middle East, and Huntsman again sighed. “He’s backing off the specifics, instead of describing what types of defense programs we need on the high seas,” he said. “What kind of weapon systems ought we to be investing in? What are the implications for Taiwan?”
“He may not know,” Mary Kaye responded.
“Well, he’s in the Senate,” Huntsman said. “He absolutely should know.” Huntsman seems to have a lukewarm perspective on the Senate; when I asked if he’d consider running for Sen. Mitt Romney’s seat next year, he balked. “What can you get done as a junior senator?” he asked. “You’re one of a hundred. I mean, what has Romney done, beside his rhetorical attacks on Trump?”
Ramaswamy began rhapsodizing on the supply chain entanglements that put the U.S. military in China’s pocket — the reliance on China for parts and supplies. “These are actually very salient points, you know, what it takes to build a plane or ship,” Huntsman said. But by the time Huntsman finished his thought, Ramaswamy was promising to ban U.S. businesses from expanding into China. “OK, these are throwaway lines,” Huntsman said. “It’s a free market.”
I asked if any of the candidates understood China. Huntsman hesitated, thinking. “I doubt, with the exception of maybe one or two, they’ve even been there,” he said.
Later, when Ramaswamy attacked Haley’s daughter for using TikTok, Haley snapped back, “Keep my daughter’s name out of your voice.”
Hunstman smiled. “She may win this one for that reason alone,” he said. “You don’t bring families into it.”
When the conversation returned to DeSantis, Huntsman feigned surprise. “Oh! I forgot DeSantis was there!” he said. “Ron DeSantis has got to acquire a smile, at some point.”
“His demeanor looks defeated,” Mary Kaye said. “He looks kind of depressed, like the balloon has popped.”
“He really comes across as an overly scripted, overly coached candidate,” Huntsman said.
“I think that’s one of the things people like about Trump,” Mary Kaye said — that there’s no veneer, no script. “Absolutely,” Huntsman said.
By the time the candidates made their closing statements, Huntsman had seen enough. Haley’s was “inspirational.” Scott’s was “a little too over-the-top.” Ramaswamy’s was “horrible — a total wasted opportunity to inspire people.” Christie looked “beaten down,” with “nothing to lose” — but it seemed to bring out the best of him. DeSantis did one thing the other candidates seemed to forget: ask people to vote for him.
Huntsman was convinced Haley won, followed by Scott and DeSantis. Ramaswamy is “absolutely brilliant,” he said, but translating that to being “believable and comprehensible” is a “challenge.”
I asked if he thought any of these candidates had a chance of winning the nomination. “No,” he said. “Tonight is completely inconsequential,” aside from a competition for a potential vice president spot.
If he were choosing a vice president, then, who would he select? He thought for a moment. “I think Nikki Haley is showing some moxie,” he said.
“If I just had to choose one of them in the field, who I would trust most — just based on instinct and experience — I think she’d probably rise to the top pretty fast.”