LIBERTY STATE PARK, N.J. — Former Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman (R) launched his presidential campaign Tuesday with the message that he is a post-partisan political leader.
Speaking with the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan skyline as his backdrop in an effort to evoke Ronald Reagan, who held a campaign event from the same spot a generation ago, Huntsman said he would bring to the presidency a focus on substance and not on politics.
The mounting debt and other problems facing the United States are “un-American,” he said. But he wouldn’t extend that line of attack against his former boss, President Obama.
Huntsman said his campaign against the president for whom he’d served as ambassador would boil down to policy, not attacks on patriotism.
“He and I have a difference of opinion on how to help the country we both love,” Huntsman said. “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’s greatest vulnerability may be the months he spent serving Obama.
John Bolton, a former ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush, assailed Huntsman on Monday for having served as the president’s top diplomat in Beijing. And while many Republicans have publicly given Huntsman a pass — he explains his service as motivated by a sense of duty — it is yet to be seen how well that explanation will play with primary voters.
Huntsman made his announcement in a charcoal suit and royal blue tie in front of a crowd of perhaps 200. His speech focused primarily on the nation’s fiscal challenges, and he called for overhauls to entitlement programs and the tax code.
Drawing on his foreign-policy experience, Huntsman made reference to military engagements in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, and talked about the need to end those conflicts “without repeating previous mistakes.”
Shortly after the speech, Huntsman headed to New Hampshire, the first-in-the-nation primary state and a key to Huntsman’s roadmap to the White House. He ditched the suit and tie in favor of an open-collar, blue-checkered shirt, and seemed slightly less stiff than in the earlier address.
“We must reignite the powerful job-creating engine of our economy. We can and we will own the future,” he said, nearly echoing Obama’s old theme of winning the future.
During a discussion with reporters traveling with him after the New Hampshire appearance, Huntsman acknowledged he was trying to make it through his first day on the campaign trail without making too many mistakes.
“I think there’s always a lot of hype the first day, everybody dumps on you,” he said. “And you kind of make it through the first day, hopefully without making too many mistakes, because if you do, you’re toast in short order.”
Huntsman didn’t escape the day without error. His campaign misspelled his first name on passes handed out to the press, and he showed some rust on the stump, repeating a great deal of the New Jersey speech in his later appearance in New Hampshire.
While Huntsman is regarded as one of the top-tier candidates for the 2012 nomination, he enters the race with little name recognition. A Gallup poll last month found only 1 percent of Republican primary voters would choose him.
That puts him far behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, like Huntsman a Mormon from Utah. The two are expected to compete for many of the same donors and supporters in the GOP race. Neither is expected to fare well in Iowa’s caucuses, and both thus have a lot riding in New Hampshire, which is practically Romney’s campaign base.
Huntsman likely won’t win the party’s hardcore Tea Party-oriented vote, but his campaign thinks he can make a play for more mainline, traditional Republicans, especially in states like New Hampshire, where stridency doesn’t necessarily translate into votes.
He said Tuesday he would not sign pledges to raise no new taxes or to limit abortion rights, referring to the “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” backed by Grover Norquist and Americans for Tax Reform and an anti-abortion-rights pledge backed by the Susan B. Anthony List.
“First of all, I don’t sign pledges. I was asked to assign a pledge when I ran for governor in 2004, and I didn’t,” he said.
Obama’s campaign advisers are nervous about Huntsman. Along with Romney and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, he is one of only three Republican candidates whose schedules are monitored closely by the president’s campaign office in Chicago.
His team is regarded as a professional crew. John Weaver, a longtime strategist for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), is leading the Huntsman operation, with many of Weaver’s acolytes in tow.
“Like the other Republican candidates, instead of proposing a plan that will allow middle-class families to reclaim their economic security, Gov. Huntsman is proposing a return to the failed economic policies that led us into the recession,” he said.
Concern about Huntsman’s political formidability admittedly drove Obama to name Huntsman the administration’s new ambassador to China in 2009, a move hailed at the time for its diplomatic deftness. Huntsman speaks fluent Mandarin and had previously served as an ambassador, and by sending him to China, Obama was seen as dispatching a potential rival in 2012.
The former ambassador made clear that he wouldn’t be throwing the sharpest elbows of the campaign, either at Obama or his fellow Republicans vying for the nomination.
“I don’t think you need to run down anyone’s reputation to run for president,” Huntsman said in New Jersey. “Of course we’ll have our disagreements. I respect my fellow Republican candidates. And I respect the president.”
This story was posted at 8:35 a.m. and last updated at 8:31 p.m.