JERSEY CITY, NJ – With the Statue of Liberty as a striking backdrop, former Utah Governor and US Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman announced his decision to enter the 2012 presidential race on Tuesday. Huntsman, a husband and father of seven children – including two adopted daughters from China and India – called America’s current global trajectory “unacceptable,” and vowed to provide leadership that transcends “hope” – a veiled attack against President Obama, whom he did not mention by name during his remarks.
“For the first time in history, we are passing down to the next generation a country that is less powerful, less compassionate, less competitive, and less confident than the one we got. This, ladies and gentlemen, is totally unacceptable and it is totally un-American,” Huntsman told a crowd of several hundred supporters and journalists.
After recapitulating his record as Utah’s governor, which includes numerous accolades for strong conservative fiscal management, Huntsman turned to the subject of civility. The one-time Obama appointee has been criticized for adopting what some conservatives have dubbed the “no names strategy,” a reference to his refusal to explicitly name the president in his policy critiques. “Our political debates are corrosive and not reflective of the belief that Abraham Lincoln espoused back in his day – that we are a great country because we are a good country,” Huntsman said. “We will conduct this campaign on the high road.”
“Live Free Or Die”
Following his speech, Huntsman traveled to New Hampshire on a chartered jet, a pool of reporters in tow. A standing-room-only crowd squeezed into Exeter, New Hampshire’s intimate, bunting-adorned town hall to greet Huntsman and his family. A video depicting Huntsman motorbiking through the Utah desert served as an introduction. The clip, voiced-over by actor Brian Dennehy, laid out elements of Huntsman’s biography – from his decision to drop out of high school to travel with a rock band, to touting his pro-life convictions, to his refusal to pander on issues.
He’s a candidate who will “never flip, never flop,” Huntsman’s video declared, adding that he helped create private sector jobs, rather than “buying” them – both fairly obvious digs at GOP frontrunner and fellow Mormon Mitt Romney. Summing up Team Huntsman’s central argument to voters, the video concludes, “this is the guy who can win.”
Huntsman emerged to cheers, having traded in his dark suit and blue tie for a plaid shirt with rolled up sleeves. Surrounded by supporters holding signs reading “Real Hope,” and “Jon2012.com” (the candidate’s eponymous web domain had already been snapped up by opponents; it features several of Huntsman’s glowing correspondences with President Obama), Huntsman reprised his announcement speech, nearly word-for-word. One noticeable difference: His ode to “civility” was received warmly, unlike in New Jersey, where an identical passage drew silence.
“I want you to know that I respect my fellow Republican candidates, and I respect the President of the United States,” he said, drawing applause for both sentiments. “[The president] and I have a difference of opinion on how to help a country we both love. But the question each of us wants voters to answer is who will be the better president; not who’s the better American.”
Huntsman also showed that he wasn’t above engaging in a little regional pandering, telling the crowd that he and his family thought “live free or die” would be an appropriate slogan for his nascent campaign.
“A hell of a resume,” but some doubts linger
Several undecided New Hampshire voters in attendance said they attended the event out of curiosity, as Huntsman remains a relatively unknown candidate. “I wanted to learn more about him,” explained Shelley Glassner, a middle-aged Exeter resident, a self-described. “What I learned was that he appears to be humble, and honest, and that he has integrity.” Glassner said she welcomed Huntsman’s so-called “no names” approach vis-à-vis the president. “I really liked that – that’s the integrity part,” she said.
Joe Linder, a retiree and “strong Republican” said he also came away impressed, but not without some reservations. “[Huntsman’s] got a hell of a resume, but whether he has enough charisma to pull all the way through is another thing,” he said, adding that he wasn’t sold on Huntsman’s decision not to attack President Obama by name. “I’d say [Republicans] should use Obama’s name. He hasn’t hesitated to call us names, within any context he wants.”
“A fairly aggressive draw-down”
On the flight back to Newark, Huntsman engaged a gaggle of reporters. His most notable comments came in response to a question about troop reductions in Afghanistan – a topic President Obama will address in a speech this week. In his announcement, Huntsman emphasized the need for the US military to “manage the end” of conflicts abroad. Aboard his campaign plane, the candidate was more specific: “I believe the sense of the American people is that we should begin a fairly aggressive draw-down. That’s certainly my sense,” he said, before tacking on the caveat that an “appropriate” counter-terrorism force should remain in the war-torn country. “I’m not sure the fate of our country will be determined on the prairies of Afghanistan,” he said.
Huntsman also fielded a wide array of other policy questions. He declined to sign Grover Norquist’s anti-tax hike pledge, explaining that he doesn’t sign pledges. (“Your record should say everything.”) The former governor said he’d respect New York’s same-sex marriage decision regardless of outcome, downplayed his past enthusiastic support for cap and trade (it’s “less relevant” because of the “economic implosion”), and declined to endorse either candidate in a potential Utah Republican Senate primary between Senator Orrin Hatch and Rep. Jason Chaffetz. “They’re both terrific people,” he said.
As he nibbled on string cheese and smiled, Huntsman brushed off what Democrats were already calling a rocky start to his official campaign. Earlier on Tuesday, the DNC blasted out a CNN story, which pointed out several minor snafus (press passes misspelled the candidate’s first name and incorrectly listed the announcement state as New York). “There’s a lot of hype on the first day, and everyone dumps on you,” Huntsman replied, “But this is a marathon.”
It wasn’t just Democrats and mainstream media outlets “dumping” on Huntsman, however. A significant number of conservatives also offered negative reactions to his formal entrance into the race. Rick Santorum’s rival campaign lampooned Huntsman’s esoteric motorcycle web ads and questioned his commitment to the pro-life cause. Syndicated columnist Jonah Goldberg tweeted that Huntsman would soon join a “Mount Rushmore” of politicians with whom the media was infatuated, but who never connected with voters. Others suggested that Huntsman’s perceived moderation on issues and understated style rendered him boring and ultimately unappealing.
Huntsman, who appeared with Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity on Tuesday night, resumes his media blitz with a string of morning show appearances on Wednesday.