MIAMI — Newly declared GOP candidate Jon Huntsman hit the Sunshine State Thursday to open his national headquarters, calling Florida the place where the Republican presidential nominee will be chosen.
The former Utah governor toured a lumber company in Miami, and he met with local business leaders before heading to Orlando to open his headquarters. Huntsman said he picked Florida for his national offices because it is a key state, and because his wife is originally from Orlando. Her family moved when she was 14. She and five of the couple's children accompanied him during the campaign stop through the outskirts of Miami's Little Havana.
"What choice did I have?" he joked, pointing to his wife of 28 years.
"Florida, I think is where the Republican primary will be ultimately decided," Huntsman added on a more serious note as he took questions outside of the family-owned Everglades Lumber and Building Supply company:
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.
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.
When 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.
"To begin this conversation, we need to prove we can secure the borders," he then said. "And we haven't done that."
Huntsman also emphasized the valuable contributions legal immigrants have made to the U.S. including his own family, pointing out his two youngest daughters — who were adopted from China and India — as well as Everglades lumber owner Ovi Vento, whose family came from Cuba.
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.
"He's substantive. He believes in a civilized debate," Bush said.
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 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.
Huntsman on Thursday reiterated his call for a civil campaign and asked reporters to look at his full record as they begin to scrutinize him, noting that while he accepted stimulus money from the Obama administration as governor, he was also critical of some of the ways in which the stimulus process was handled. He repeated his concerns that the drawdown in Afghanistan is not happening fast enough.
Huntsman seemed most comfortable Thursday morning during a round-table discussion at the nearby Sarussi CafÉ & Restaurant, pressing local business leaders for specific details regarding their concerns over how government regulations have hurt their companies in recent years.
Among those he met was real estate developer Isilio Arriaga, a former head of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce who said before the meeting he was interested in Huntsman but knew little about him. As the meeting broke up, Arriaga thanked Huntsman.
"Your words are music to my ears," he said.
Laura Wides-Munoz is on twitter at http://twitter.com/lwmunoz