Carl P. Leubsdorf: Huntsman begins to shape his image with GOP

By Carl Leubsdorf

The Dallas Morning News

Published: Friday, June 24 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Presidential candidates use their formal announcements to introduce themselves to American voters. Many do so in their hometowns: Bill Clinton in Little Rock, Bob Dole in Russell, Kan. and, in a few weeks, Rep. Michele Bachmann in Waterloo, Iowa.

Others, though, seek to create an image they want to place before the voters. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney recently declared his candidacy on a New Hampshire farm with a sharp attack on President Barack Obama's stewardship of the American economy.

On Tuesday, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman sought to present himself as a political heir of the GOP's greatest modern hero, Ronald Reagan. Huntsman, whose first political job was in the Reagan White House, announced his candidacy at Liberty State Park, N.J., across from the Statue of Liberty.

Reagan launched his 1980 general election campaign there, and Huntsman underscored the point Tuesday: "I stand in his shadow as well as the shadow of this magnificent monument to our liberties."

Beyond the setting, however, the most significant part of Huntsman's announcement may have been its noticeably less harshly partisan tone. He vowed a "high-road" campaign and neither mentioned Obama by name nor blamed him directly for the country's problems.

"I respect my fellow Republican candidates, and I respect the president of the United States," he said. "He and I have a difference of opinion on how to help the country we both love."

It's questionable how that will play in a GOP filled with sharp antagonism toward Obama and his policies. And many Republicans may be unhappy with the two years the little-known Huntsman spent as Obama's ambassador to China.

Indeed, some top Obama aides say, Huntsman indicated he supported some of the president's most controversial policies.

On Sunday, David Axelrod asserted on CNN's "State of the Union" that, in a 2009 conversation, Huntsman was "effusive" about "what the president was doing" on health care and "on the whole range of issues." The Huntsman camp called that "absurd."

But in an earlier letter published by The Daily Caller, a conservative website, Huntsman called Obama "a remarkable leader."

As for that moderate image, it stems mostly from his manner and his support for same-sex civil unions. In other areas, Huntsman mirrors his GOP rivals' conservative stances.

He said he would have voted for the controversial House GOP budget phasing out Medicare. Like former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Huntsman has backed away from past support for "capping greenhouse gas pollution."

One possible plus is his foreign policy experience. Besides serving in China, he was ambassador to Singapore for the first President Bush and deputy trade representative under the second. Huntsman drew a subtle difference Tuesday with calls by Romney and Bachmann to withdraw as soon as possible from Afghanistan, saying "we must manage the end of these conflicts without repeating past mistakes."

Though he has spent most of his adult life in government or working for the global chemical company his father founded, Huntsman dropped out of high school to play keyboard in a rock band and is an avid motorcyclist. Though Mormon like Romney, he repeatedly has declined to say he is a practicing Mormon.

As for campaign strategy, Huntsman already made it clear he will target early primaries in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida. His headquarters is in his wife's home state of Florida. His crucial test will be New Hampshire, where polls show Romney well ahead.

But the absence of a Democratic contest might bring many independents into the Republican primary, and any Huntsman success could squeeze Romney ideologically between outspoken conservatives on his right and Huntsman on his left.

Of course, that might help the strongest conservative; in 1996, conservative commentator Pat Buchanan won because Bob Dole and Lamar Alexander split the mainstream vote.

Huntsman's strategists have made one risky decision by deciding to pass up the Iowa caucuses. Though dominated by social conservatives, enough mainstream conservatives may participate to boost a more moderate candidate for New Hampshire.

By opting out, Huntsman risks the chance that beneficiary will be Romney, who is bypassing the GOP's August Iowa straw poll but apparently will make some effort in the Hawkeye State.

Carl P. Leubsdorf's email address: carl.p.leubsdorf@gmail.com

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