Jon Huntsman looks for jolt in GOP debate
Politics • Former Utah governor makes his debate debut in Iowa.
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Washington • In his presidential debate debut, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman defended his family business, his support for civil unions and whether he even belonged in the Republican field seeking the White House.

Attempting to give a jolt to his stalling campaign, Huntsman cited his record in Utah and swiped at his fellow competitors for staying silent as the country was on the brink of defaulting.

"I'm a little different than everyone else in that regard," Huntsman said, adding that accepting a deal to cut spending and allow the government to keep paying its bills was leadership that was lacking in his rivals. "This nation should never default."

Huntsman also spun the slogan President Barack Obama used to win the Hawkeye State, and later the presidency, into Huntsman's own new campaign motto.

"Barack Obama won in 2008 on hope; I'm going to win 2012 on solutions," Huntsman said in closing remarks.

Mitt Romney also used Obama as his foil.

While taking heat from his GOP rivals, the frontrunner kept his criticism focused squarely on the Democrat in the Oval Office and what he said was his failure to right the economy.

"If you spend your life in the private sector, you understand what President Obama has done is the complete opposite of what needs to be done," Romney said.

If Huntsman was counting on the debate to bring him out of the cellar in national polls, he may have fallen short, observers said.

"I thought he was a little bit flat and humorless, and I really felt like he didn't connect well with the audience," said Steve Grubbs, a former state lawmaker and ex-chairman of the Iowa Republican Party who has yet to endorse one of the hopefuls. "I think of the candidates on the stage, I think he made the least impression on voters."

Huntsman's campaign, however, spun Huntsman's debate entrance as a win for his chance to "distinguish" himself as a job creator with business experience and foreign policy credentials.

The other candidates were somewhat overshadowed by squabbling between the two Minnesotans in the race.

Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, standing next to each other on stage in Ames, Iowa, offered scorching criticism of each other as they battle for votes in Saturday's crucial straw poll, turning the other six White House hopefuls onstage into observers for a chunk of the two-hour give-and-take.

Candidates sparred on occasion with each other over their records, but they mostly ignored Huntsman. That didn't mean Huntsman escaped tough questions.

Asked if fellow Republicans were wrong in opposing civil unions, Huntsman stood fast on his support for them.

"I believe in traditional marriage, first and foremost," Huntsman said. "But I also believe in civil unions because I think this nation can do a better job when it comes to equality."

While it may not have played with the Iowa crowd — only a smattering of applause followed his answer — the line may work in other early primary states where independent voters could buoy Huntsman's candidacy.

Bruce Gronbeck, professor emeritus of political communication at the University of Iowa, said Huntsman came alive when answering that question.

"This night in Iowa just might have secured a position pairing him with Mitt Romney as a Republican candidate who will appeal to a good-sized voter base, even outside the party," Gronbeck said.

Fox News host Chris Wallace tossed Huntsman his first question, zeroing in on criticism that the candidate's previous position as U.S. ambassador to China under Obama and other moderate positions may not make him the ideal GOP contender.

"Some people have suggested that maybe you're running for president in the wrong party," Wallace said.

Huntsman said when asked to serve one's country, especially in such a sensitive position, he was honored to do so.

"I'm the kind of person who is going to stand up and do it and I'll take that philosophy to my grave," Huntsman said.

The question of whether voters would elect a Mormon as president also popped up in the debate, but neither Huntsman nor Romney, the two adherents to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, were asked. Instead, the hosts directed the question to Herman Cain, the former chief executive of Godfather's Pizza, who previously said some voters may not be willing to back a Mormon.

Cain said he was only relaying the concern he hears in the South from Protestant Christians.

"It was not an aspersion whatsoever on his religion," Cain said. "I was simply saying what others have told me about not being real clear in understanding his religion."

Neither Huntsman nor Romney commented on the line.

Huntsman, a former executive in the Salt Lake City-based Huntsman Corp., parlayed a question about why his family's business had most of its employees overseas into a rant against environmental regulations in America that he said were squeezing U.S. companies.

"It used to mean something when you read 'made in America,' " Huntsman said. "We don't make things anymore in this country. We need to start making things in this country."

While Huntsman's competitors were planning to stick around in Iowa to hit the state fair and schmooze voters, Huntsman was scheduled to be in New Hampshire on Friday.

tburr@sltrib.com