Huntsman too civil for campaign trail?

Former envoy tries to ratchet up attacks diplomatically

SALT LAKE CITY | A diplomat to the core, Jon Huntsman Jr. is well-known here as a likable guy who prefers compromise to combativeness. Niceness is such a strong part of his persona that the Republican pledged to run a civil campaign for president.

“He genuinely wants to please people, and he gets along with everyone,” said Olene Walker, a Republican who preceded Huntsman as Utah governor.

But now, as Mr. Huntsman struggles against better-known opponents, he is both subtly and directly criticizing GOP front-runner Mitt Romney as well as the Democrat who named him U.S. ambassador to China just a few years ago, President Obama.

The shift in tone comes as polls show Mr. Huntsman in single digits nationally and in key states, and it follows his decision to change campaign managers. Advisers over the past few weeks have been telling Mr. Huntsman that he must engage Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama to boost his prospects of winning the GOP nomination.

He’s obliged.

While in South Carolina recently, Mr. Huntsman jabbed at Mr. Romney’s record, saying Utah led the way on job creation and urging his audience to compare it to Massachusetts’ standing: “Not first, but 47th.” And last week in New Hampshire, he called Mr. Obama “a good man” and “earnest.” But, he added, “He’s fundamentally failed us.”

It’s an uncomfortable political role for Mr. Huntsman, who has prided himself on his diplomatic skills and is rarely disliked by anyone, even those who disagree with him politically. In part, that’s because he has never faced a strong challenge for political office, but it also speaks to his personality.

Republicans and Democrats alike in Utah roundly describe Mr. Huntsman as a leader who always sought the middle ground and never resorted to personal attacks to gain the upper hand.

“He wasn’t an ideologue, and he empathized with a lot of different points of views,” said Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, who was the Utah House minority leader during most of Mr. Huntsman’s time as governor. “He’s the kind of leader we want. He’s inclusive, he’s charming and he’s got strong diplomatic skills.”

As governor, Mr. Huntsman was almost as popular with Democrats as he was with those in his own party, which made him practically invincible when he ran for re-election in 2008 in a strongly conservative state.

His Democratic opponent, Bob Springmeyer, said Mr. Huntsman never did anything publicly or privately that suggested he was anything but genuine. “The nice-guy image, the diplomatic personality is legitimate,” he said.

Thus, as he increases his criticism of his White House rivals, Mr. Huntsman risks undermining his authenticity and turning off GOP primary voters. That may explain why he’s trying to contrast himself with his rivals without appearing negative. It’s as if he’d rather let voters read between the lines of his criticism than castigate his opponents by name.

“A lot of people run from their record. We’re running on our record,” Mr. Huntsman told college Republicans late Friday in Washington.

He didn’t mention Mr. Romney, but the target of his comment was clear, and his aides acknowledged that he was referring to the former Massachusetts governor who has downplayed certain parts of his record that don’t sit well with conservatives.

His campaign aides dispute the notion that Mr. Huntsman has shifted to a more negative tone even as they mercilessly assail his opponents - Mr. Romney, in particular - on social-networking sites and in media interviews.

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