Jersey City, N.J. • Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. on Tuesday vowed to renew the "promise of America" in announcing that he would seek the presidency, pitching himself as the candidate who can rise above partisan politics and beat President Barack Obama.
Only 2,000 feet from the Statue of Liberty, Huntsman, Utah's 16th governor and its first to run for the White House, channeled President Ronald Reagan in saying that it's "time to make America great again." Huntsman, a former White House staff assistant under Reagan, chose Liberty State Park in New Jersey for his big announcement, the spot where Reagan in 1980 kicked off his general election campaign.
"We're not just choosing new leaders," Huntsman said. "We're choosing whether we are to become yesterday's story or tomorrow's. Everything is at stake. This is the hour when we choose our future."
Huntsman, who resigned as the U.S. ambassador to China 51 days ago, steered clear of attacking Obama, who appointed him 18 months ago to head halfway across the globe.
"I don't think you need to run down anyone's reputation to run for president," Huntsman said. "Of course we'll have our disagreements. I respect my fellow Republican candidates. And I respect the president. He and I have a difference of opinion on how to help the country we both love. But the question each of us wants the voters to answer is who will be the better president; not who's the better American."
Barely a blip in national polls and with a campaign that's still forming, Huntsman faces a daunting challenge to make up for lost time and compete with well-established candidates. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, for example, already has a previous presidential campaign under his belt, a veteran staff and a four-year head start.
Huntsman may actually use his newness to his advantage, hoping that voters dissatisfied with the current crop of candidates will get excited about him.
Neil Ashdown, who served as Huntsman's chief of staff while he was governor and later did a similar job for him in Beijing, roamed about at the announcement, beaming broadly.
"It's a huge day for all of Utah," Ashdown said. "We're all very excited for him."
His Utah record will be a primary selling point in his bid. The former governor plans to herald his time as chief executive of a state slightly seared by an economic depression but not burned like many of its neighbors.
"We must reignite the powerful job-creating engine of our economy the industry, innovation, reliability, and trailblazing genius of Americans and their enterprises and restore confidence in our people," Huntsman said, citing his work to pass the biggest tax cut in state history, a AAA-bond rating and awards citing Utah as the best-managed state in the union.
"We proved government doesn't have to choose between fiscal responsibility and economic growth," Huntsman said. "I learned something very important as governor. For the average American family, there is nothing more important than a job."
With Iowa's caucuses out of the mix for Huntsman, his path to the White House starts and ultimately could end in New Hampshire, the state with the nation's first presidential primary contest.
A few hours after Huntsman announced, he flew to New Hampshire and rallied a packed crowd at Exeter Town Hall, where supporters held sleek Huntsman 2012 signs and a few hand-made versions: "Gun owners for Huntsman," and "Real Hope Huntsman."
Huntsman stuck to his theme, arguing it would be wrong for this generation to leave America worse off for the next generation and touting his record as Utah governor.
The candidate his suit coat and tie gone, replaced with a checkered shirt told reporters afterward that he loves New Hampshire.
"This is going to be a very important state for us and we're going to work it very hard and very aggressively," Huntsman said. "We've been up here several times and we've made a lot of good friends."
One of those was former County Commissioner Maureen Barrows, who introduced Huntsman to the crowd and said Utahns were some of the most "wonderful, humane" people she's met outside of her home state.
"There is no question in my mind that [Huntsman] is the kind of candidate we've been waiting for," she said.
Deep in the audience, Alex Foster wore a Huntsman campaign T-shirt like a cape.
"Everything he's saying is a lot of what I've been feeling," said Foster, a 25-year-old school teacher from Exeter.
Huntsman returned to New York City later in the day for a private dinner and fundraiser.
Taking his announcement tour on the road, Huntsman next heads to South Carolina and Florida before turning west, a move intended to drive media coverage and blanket the airwaves.
Huntsman attracted scores of supporters to hear his campaign speech, including Chris Thomas of Staten Island, who carried an American flag.
"It sounds like he's the type of candidate who can actually win in 2012," Thomas said, citing Huntsman's business background and what he called a common-sense track record.
Thomas' buddy, John Weiss, also from Staten Island, called Huntsman the "conviction candidate."
"I think Huntsman's the right man for the job," he said. "He's the right choice for our party and the right choice for America."
Huntsman's father, Jon Huntsman Sr., holds the same view. He and most of the Huntsman clan were on hand. Huntsman Sr. noted that Tuesday was his 74th birthday.
"A father couldn't ask for a better birthday gift," the elder Huntsman said.
Huntsman Jr.'s former bandmate, Eric Malmquist, now a general contractor in California, said Tuesday he's excited to see Huntsman run.
"I understand he is a different person then the 18-year-old musician trying to find fame he already had fortune," Malmquist said. "Everything I have read and seen of him he really looks like someone that seems to have a more common-sense stance of where we need to go as a nation."
Huntsman was twice elected governor in Utah, last time by a whopping 78 percent of the vote. He's not likely to see numbers like that again.
Democrats were quick to paint Huntsman as a flip-flopper, charging his shifting positions are similar to that of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who was dogged by that claim in his 2008 bid.
"Jon Huntsman's attractiveness as a politician was supposed to be that he was different different enough to be a Republican governor who would take a job working for a Democratic president and who took stands on policies like health care and cap and trade out of principle instead of politics," says Brad Woodhouse, communications director to the Democratic National Committee. "Sadly, Jon Huntsman isn't different he's a typical, Mitt Romney-like politician whose ambition is more important than his principles. The Jon Huntsman reinvention tour has begun. Whether it is going anywhere is another matter."
The former Utah governor, who hails from a prominent, wealthy Utah family, enters the race carrying some heavy baggage that may not go over well with the social conservatives who often dominate Republican primaries. Huntsman backs civil unions and has said he believes in climate change. Add to that the fact he spent 18 months as Obama's ambassador to China, and Huntsman likely will face some hesitation from potential voters.
Obama and his top advisers have jokingly praised Huntsman a backhanded effort to hurt his chances with primary voters but The Hill newspaper reported recently that Huntsman was among three candidates Obama's campaign is focusing on. Romney and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty round out the trio.
Huntsman, who sold his Utah home in 2005 and now owns a place in Washington, D.C., plans to base his campaign in Orlando, Fla., where his wife, Mary Kaye, grew up.
Huntsman, though, says he's not forgetting Utah as he mounts a White House bid.
"We love our state, served it to the best of our ability," Huntsman told The Tribune in an interview. "I was raised in California, lived all over the world, [but] our home is in Utah."
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