Utah's Jon Huntsman joins crowded GOP presidential field

McClatchy NewspapersJune 21, 2011 

Jon Huntsman.

AP PHOTO/MEL EVANS

JERSEY CITY, N.J. — Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman announced his candidacy for the presidency Tuesday, casting himself as an atypical politician and pledging to take the “high road” in his campaign for the 2012 Republican nomination.

Huntsman, who only recently stepped down as President Barack Obama’s ambassador to China, decried the “corrosive” nature of 21st-century politics, saying he won’t “run down” his rivals for the GOP nomination _ or the president.

“I respect the president of the United States,” Huntsman said, the Statue of Liberty at his back, American flags at his side. “He and I have a difference of opinion on how to help a country we both love. But the question each of us wants the voters to answer is who will be the better president; not who's the better American.”

Huntsman, who made his pitch from the same spot where Ronald Reagan announced his candidacy in 1980, looked to his own experience as governor to sound themes popular with conservative voters: lower taxes, less government.

Americans, he said, are experiencing “a sense that the deck is stacked against them,” but the U.S. has the means to rebound.

“What we now need is leadership that trusts in our strength,” he said. “Leadership that doesn't promise Washington has all of the solutions to our problems, but rather looks to local solutions from our cities, towns and states.”

He touted his record as governor, saying that under his leadership Utah cut taxes, flattened tax rates, balanced its budget and “when the economic crisis hit, we were prepared.

We proved that government doesn't have to choose between fiscal responsibility and economic growth.”

He signaled support for reduced U.S. military involvement abroad, a day before Obama is to announce from the White House his plans to start drawing down troops in Afghanistan. The U.S., Huntsman said, needs to “manage the end of these conflicts.

“It's not that we wish to disengage from the world; don't get me wrong. But rather that we believe the best long-term national security strategy is rebuilding our core here at home.”

Considered a moderate Republican _ he opposes abortion rights but has backed civil unions for gays _ Huntsman may find his path to the nomination complicated, strategists say. But his campaign says his background as governor and his foreign policy experience set him apart in the crowded field of GOP hopefuls, none of whom has emerged as a consensus front-runner.

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Some Democrats have suggested that Huntsman would be a formidable general election challenger should he win the nomination, and they note that Obama was lauded for removing a potential rival when he asked Huntsman _ who learned Mandarin Chinese when he was a Mormon missionary in Taiwan _ to serve as U.S. ambassador.

“He’s a triple threat with experience in China and abroad that the others don’t have,” said David “DJ” Johnson, a Huntsman consultant and former Republican Party of Florida executive director. “Jon Huntsman is the kind of person who can not only win a nomination, but a general election against someone as polished and as good a campaigner as Obama.”

But Huntsman's service to the Democratic president and his pledge not to engage in slash-and-burn politics could be risky in navigating GOP primaries, often dominated by the most conservative voters.

Huntsman already has said he won’t compete in Iowa _ traditionally the first state to begin nomination voting _ citing his opposition to ethanol subsidies. But his campaign is hoping he can place high in New Hampshire, the first primary state, where GOP primary voters aren't as conservative as in Iowa and independents can vote.

Part of Huntsman's pitch is his unorthodox biography _ he dropped out of high school to travel with his band, Wizard _ and his campaign has played up the image in videos by Republican ad maker Fred Davis, showing a lone motocross rider zipping across the West.

A Davis video preceded Huntsman onstage Tuesday, with a voice-over touting the Mandarin-speaking, motocross-loving governor and diplomat as the “ultimate conservative” and “forever pro-life.” It sought to paint the scion of a billionaire businessman _ his father, John Huntsman Sr., invented the clamshell packaging that held Big Macs _ as a man of the people, saying the younger Huntsman “prefers a greasy spoon to a linen tablecloth.”

Perhaps in keeping with the narrator’s description of Huntsman as “not in it for the balloons,” there were few of the usual political flourishes such as loud rock music. Polite applause greeted Huntsman’s low-key, mannered remarks.

Though Huntsman pledged to return civility to politics, the video didn’t refrain from knocking candidate Mitt Romney, who's been criticized for switching positions and backing a state health care program as Massachusetts governor that the Obama administration says was a model for the president’s plan, which most Republicans abhor.

Huntsman, the voice-over said, took on "the tough: health care" and "did it right: no mandates, free-market based, not government run." And, the narrator added, he’d “never flip, never flop.”

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A film crew captured Huntsman’s photogenic announcement as he crossed a wide green lawn to the waterfront stage, beaming and holding hands with his wife, Mary Kaye. The couple’s seven children joined them, linking arms.

After the announcement, they were off to New Hampshire, where Huntsman has campaigned of late but where a recent poll found that just 14 percent of likely Republican voters viewed him favorably.

Voters in New Hampshire suggest that Huntsman might have trouble carving out space from Romney, a neighbor who owns a home there and has campaigned nearly nonstop since the 2008 primary.

"How does he separate himself from Romney? That's a tough call,” said former Windham, N.H., Selectman Margaret Crisler.

And though Huntsman can tout his foreign policy experience, voters suggest that raises other problems.

"I'm not sure we can have someone unwilling to criticize President Obama," said Jennifer Horn of Nashua, the president of We The People, a grass-roots conservative group.

(David Lightman contributed to this report from New Hampshire.)

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