Though he has one of the most impressive resumes in the GOP presidential field, Jon Huntsman Jr. is relatively unknown outside his home state — a fact that presents both challenge and opportunity as the former Utah governor officially launches his campaign Tuesday.
For Mr. Huntsman, that appears to include framing himself as a modern-day “Marlboro Man” of sorts, minus the smokes.
In a series of pre-campaign ads for the Harley-loving Mormon, a lone cyclist is shown cruising the desert aboard a dirt bike while country music plays and subtitled messages dissolve on the screen: “Tomorrow. The candidate for president who rides motocross to relax.”
Mr. Huntsman, who has vowed to park a Harley-Davidson outside the White House if elected, had to call off a scheduled ride recently to an annual motorcycle rally in Laconia, N.H., because of rain — losing out on a prime photo opportunity and the chance to gain some additional “street cred” with cyclists.
But the real roadblocks facing the Utah Republican’s White House bid are more substantial than a summer shower. He has to win over the GOP rank and file despite his service in the Obama administration as the ambassador to China and his support for “cap-and-trade,” civil unions and in-state tuition for illegal immigrants.
“This year, Republicans seem to want a reliable, predictable conservative leader on a wide range of issues — someone who will not shrink from challenging a president they intensely dislike,” said Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “How can Obama’s ambassador to China, whose record is an ideological mixed bag, do that?”
Mr. Huntsman will announce his presidential bid Tuesday in New Jersey, with the Statue of Liberty as his backdrop. From there, he’ll go to New Hampshire and then to South Carolina — hitting the earliest primary states, where campaign strategist John Weaver believes there “is nothing but blue skies for us.”
He enters a field already crowded with familiar national figures jockeying to claim the mantle of the “real” conservative.
Mr. Huntsman, by contrast, has toiled in relative obscurity, including a stint as deputy trade representative under President George W. Bush, then six years as governor of Utah. When Mr. Obama asked him to be his ambassador in 2009, Mr. Huntsman said yes.
While Newt Gingrich and Rep. Michele Bachmann fight for the tea partyers, Mr. Huntsman and his team see an alternative path to the White House: a campaign fueled by more moderate elements of the GOP electorate.
He has highlighted his pro-life and pro-gun records.
He’s noted that he presided over the biggest tax cut in Utah history and suggested that unless a winning exit strategy from Afghanistan can be drawn up, the country must seriously weigh the cost of continuing the war.
But more than anything else, he is focused his message on the economy, arguing that his experience in the private sector, the governor’s mansion and overseas have equipped him with the skills needed to address the country’s most pressing issues: the $14.3 trillion national debt, the 9.1 percent unemployment rate and China, which he has labeled the most significant strategic challenge.
“This is the country that we’re handing down to the next generation and for the first time in history we’re facing the prospect that the next generation — my kids, your kids, people’s grandkids — are going to get a country, the greatest nation that ever was in the history of the world, that’s less good, less capable, less competitive than the one we got,” Mr. Huntsman said. “That’s totally unacceptable, and there are things we can do to fix that.”
The state party released a video parody Monday of Mr. Huntsman’s motocross ad, inserting subtitles over the original footage mocking what they see as his new positions.
“Huntsman’s changed positions so quickly over the past few days it’s enough to give Utah voters whiplash,” Wayne Holland, state Democratic Party chairman, told reporters on a conference call.
Mark Meckler, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, said Mr. Huntsman is creating “zero buzz” among the grass-roots, fiscally conservative movement that helped propel Republicans to take control of the U.S. House last year. “I don’t think a guy like Huntsman has a chance of getting tea party support,” Mr. Meckler said.
The criticisms underscore the key challenge for Mr. Huntsman: prove to Republican primary voters he’s one of them.
It’s the same challenge he faced this month in New Hampshire, when he canceled the motorcycle rally ride because of rain.
“He is legitimately a motorcycle rider,” said Stephen Talarico, owner of a Harley-Davidson dealership in Manchester, where Mr. Huntsman made a campaign stop. “I think the governors’ approach to the motorcycle side of it is these are his constituents — independent Republicans.”
But not everyone was as easily convinced, saying they would have ridden, rain or shine, to the Laconia rally.
“If you don’t ride up, I wouldn’t vote for you,” Davie Lizotte, a 51-year-old from Epping, said with a grin. “If you’re a hardcore rider, throw your rain gear on and go.”