Jon Huntsman Jr., the former Utah governor and Obama administration envoy to China, formally announced his presidential bid today, positioning himself as an unconventional fresh face in a crowded Republican field.
At a New Jersey park with the Statue of Liberty looming in the background, Huntsman invoked former President Ronald Reagan, promising a campaign based on themes of American renewal that would draw respectful yet clear contrasts with President Barack Obama, until recently Huntsman’s boss.
“What we now need is leadership that trusts in our strength,” Huntsman said, “leadership that knows we need more than hope, leadership that knows we need answers.”
Huntsman said Reagan, who announced his successful 1980 presidential bid at the same spot, “assured us we could ‘make America great again,’ and through his leadership, he did.”
“I stand in his shadow, as well as the shadow of this magnificent monument to our liberty,” Huntsman said.
Huntsman, 51, later traded his suit and tie for a checked shirt and campaigned in New Hampshire, an early-voting state in the nomination process in which independents can hold sway. At a rally in Exeter, he called for “broad and bold changes to our tax code and regulatory policies” to “reignite the powerful job-creating engine of our economy: the industry, innovation, reliability and trailblazing genius of Americans and their enterprises.”
‘Manage the End’
He also urged a turning inward on foreign policy, including steps to “manage the end” to conflicts abroad.
“It’s not that we wish to disengage from the world -- don’t get me wrong,” Huntsman said, “but rather that we believe the best long-term national security strategy is rebuilding our core right here at home.”
Speaking to reporters later, Huntsman declined to say what he wanted to hear in the speech Obama will give tomorrow on U.S. troop withdrawals from Afghanistan. He did say the fate of the U.S. wouldn’t be dictated by what happens there.
“Despite the threat from elements that don’t like us, I’m not sure that the future of our country is necessarily going to be fought on the prairies of Afghanistan,” Huntsman said. “Our future is pretty much going to be determined with the major trading partners of the world. It will be about competitiveness in the 21st century.”
Among Huntsman’s biggest challenges is setting himself apart from Mitt Romney, another telegenic former governor with a reputation as a fiscal conservative and social moderate. Both men also are Mormons. Romney is the front runner for the Republican nomination in most polls as he embarks on his second presidential run, and as Massachusetts’ former governor he enjoys a regional advantage in the New Hampshire primary race.
Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, said of Huntsman: “As the rest of the field is trying to differentiate themselves from Mitt Romney, he’s got as big a job as anyone.”
Huntsman, who was joined by his wife, Mary Kaye, and six of their seven children, never mentioned Romney in his candidacy speech. Yet an introductory video shown before he spoke contained a veiled swipe at Romney stemming from the Massachusetts health-care law enacted during his governorship -- and which Obama has said was a model for the federal statute, unpopular among Republicans, that Congress passed last year.
“Ah,” the voice intoned, “if others had only chosen that path.”
Huntsman’s video also suggested criticism of Romney based on both men’s past corporate experience. It said Huntsman, a former executive at Huntsman Corp., the chemical company that started as his family’s business in 1970 in Salt Lake City, “built things, built jobs -- didn’t just buy them.”
In campaigning, Romney touts his experience creating jobs in part as co-founder of the Boston-based private equity firm Bain Capital LLC, a firm that invested in other companies for profit.
Huntsman’s link to Huntsman Corp., which has operations headquarters near Houston, poses a potential political liability for him. The company’s rapid expansion in China could offer a target for rivals who are focusing on U.S. unemployment as a key theme in the 2012 presidential race.
His bid to offer himself as a new kind of candidate was part of the aim of the visually striking yet cryptic series of videos his campaign released over the last week that show a motocross rider driving through desert brush. Each flashes a quirky biographical fact about Huntsman across the screen: that he was once in a band called Wizard; that his seven children include one adopted from China and one from India; that he rides motocross to relax.
The last installment was shown to supporters and media today before his candidacy announcement and later before he spoke at the Exeter rally. Along with its apparent efforts to differentiate him from Romney, it previewed some of Huntsman’s likely campaign arguments, including calling him “the ultimate conservative -- forever pro-life,” someone who is “no mainstream politician,” and “the guy who can win -- decent, calm, wise, firm and disciplined.”
“This guy is different,” it concluded.
That pitch could appeal to a broad swath of Republicans and independent voters, strategists said.
“He’s the un-cola of the Republican candidates at a time when people are looking for somebody different,” said Republican strategist Mark McKinnon, a onetime adviser to former President George W. Bush who isn’t affiliated with any presidential candidate. “He’s shaping a new message.”
Huntsman is seen as a centrist within his party, which other Republican strategists said could stymie his presidential bid. He angered some Republican activists as governor of Utah by expressing support for civil unions for same-sex couples, comprehensive immigration legislation and a cap-and-trade regime to curb carbon emissions, a position he has since backed away from.
“Our primaries are dominated by conservative voters -- mostly economic, but a lot of social conservatives too,” said Frank Donatelli, who worked as an adviser to Reagan. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s unsuccessful 2008 presidential bid showed “it’s difficult -- not impossible, in my judgment, but difficult -- for a social moderate to get the Republican nomination.”
The campaign will take “the high road,” Huntsman promised during his speech. “I don’t think you need to run down someone’s reputation in order to run for the office of president,” he said, decrying what he called the “corrosive” nature of today’s political debates.
The Obama campaign wasted little time in challenging Huntsman. “Like the other Republican candidates, instead of proposing a plan that will allow middle-class families to reclaim their economic security, Governor Huntsman is proposing a return to the failed economic policies that led us into the recession,” Ben LaBolt, a spokesman for the president’s re- election bid, said in a statement.
Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee and a U.S. representative from Florida, said Huntsman was on a “re-invention tour,” trying to bill himself as unconventional even though he shares much in common with his Republican rivals.
“Sadly, Jon Huntsman is not different -- having reversed himself on the positions he took as governor he’s now become a typical, Mitt Romney-like politician whose ambition is more important than his principles,” she said in a statement.
Huntsman also faced barbs from his right. Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator whose signature issue is his opposition to abortion rights, released a Web advertisement criticizing him for failing to sign the “pro-life pledge” by the anti-abortion-rights group Susan B. Anthony List.
In his remarks to reporters on board a campaign plane after the New Hampshire rally, Huntsman said his policy isn’t to sign pledges.
“Your record should say everything about who you are and where you’re going. I don’t need to sign a pledge,” Huntsman said.
His campaign later released a statement saying Huntsman signed anti-abortion legislation as governor and “has lived it,” having adopted two abandoned children.
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