ORLANDO, Fla. — GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman used an oversize pair of scissors to cut the ceremonial ribbon at his new campaign headquarters Thursday, acknowledging the importance of the Sunshine State in picking the next Republican nominee.
"How cool is it to be making history — the first Republican presidential campaign to be headquartered in Florida!" Huntsman said to hoots and hollers from about 100 supporters packed into the downtown Orlando offices of his new campaign offices. "Florida is where this race is going to be won for the Huntsman campaign."
Even though he is a recent governor of Utah, Huntsman said he picked Florida because it is a key state in the campaign, and because his wife is originally from Orlando. Mary Kaye Huntsman and five of the couple's children accompanied him at the ribbon cutting ceremony in Orlando and during a campaign stop through the outskirts of Miami's Little Havana earlier in the day.
"Jon didn't know what to get me for my 50th birthday so he said 'How about opening an office in Orlando?'" Mary Kaye Huntsman said.
Later in a brief interview, Huntsman said he was going to focus campaigning in the early primary states of New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, while bypassing Iowa's caucus. He said he may be at a disadvantage in Iowa by virtue of geography and his position on some issues such as climate change.
Grassroots efforts are important in New Hampshire and South Carolina, but Florida is a whole different beast, he said.
"Florida is a large media market," Huntsman said. "You have to disaggregate it into all of its component parts and understand those component parts and develop a strategy for each."
A candidate also has to spend buckets of money. GOP political consultant Brett Doster said to succeed in Florida a candidate will need to spend a minimum of $3.5 million in the state but will most likely spend $10 million to $20 million
"Florida is a real litmus test to check and see if a candidate can put it all together because you're going to have to put a significant amount of money here into television and in the mailbox," said Doster, who ran President George W. Bush's Florida campaign. "Florida is almost a benchmark of whether someone is going to be able to continue on with their campaign."
The Orlando region will be key to winning Florida in the 2012 election. It saw some of the greatest growth over the last decade, predominantly from an influx of Puerto Ricans. Their votes are considered up for grabs.
"It's kind of a sea change in national politics to do something like this," said Lew Oliver, chairman of the Orange County Republican Executive Committee, of Huntsman's decision to set up shop in Orlando. "It underscores both how important Florida is and in particular, central Florida."
While the visit to Florida may mark a homecoming of sorts for the Huntsmans, the candidate seemed less at home with the instant barrage of questions on immigration he received from South Florida reporters. Florida has one of the nation's largest, mostly Hispanic, immigrant populations, and Miami is a hub for the major Spanish-language TV networks.
Asked about his immigration policy, the governor looked briefly stumped and hesitated before answering, the only time during his morning events when he seemed momentarily unprepared. When pressed, he later said he would rely on the governors of the border states to decide when the nation's borders were secure.
But Huntsman also demonstrated he is already reaching out to GOP Hispanic leaders. Among those accompanying the former governor was Jeb Bush Jr., the nephew of former President George W. Bush, and the son of Florida's popular former governor. Bush, whose mother is Mexican, said he was excited by Huntsman's candidacy, though he has not officially endorsed him.
Huntsman, 51, announced his candidacy Tuesday. He has far less name recognition than some of his competitors, including front-runner former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney, and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann.
Huntsman, like Romney, is a Mormon, and polls have shown many voters have reservations about electing a Mormon president. His service in the Obama administration as the ambassador to China and his moderate position on some issues, including same-sex civil unions and climate change, could also hurt him in the primary even as it makes him a stronger challenger to the president.
AirTran pilot William Breazeale said he hadn't decided which GOP candidate to back but was impressed enough with Huntman's decision to locate his headquarters in Florida that he wanted to meet him at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
"It is a huge compliment that he is the only candidate willing to put his national headquarters here," Breazeale said. "I wanted to see what he is about since he is going to be our neighbor here."