Painting himself as the sunny, optimistic Republican choice, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. officially joined the 2012 presidential field and laid out a broad call to push through tough economic times, but with few specifics on how he would do so.
Speaking from Liberty State Park in New Jersey, with the Statue of Liberty as his backdrop, Mr. Huntsman noted that it was the same spot where Ronald Reagan kicked off his own general election campaign on Labor Day in 1980, and said, “Today, I stand in his shadow.”
“Our problems are no bigger than our opportunities, and they are not insurmountable for people who always used our freedom to make the future better than the past,” he said in <$>a speech peppered with familiar terms of patriotic praise.
He joins a crowded field with several other former governors, two sitting members of Congress, a former House speaker and a former senator - some of whom have spent years cultivating national profiles. Mr. Huntsman will have the challenge, and opportunity, of building a national profile from scratch.
Although many of those candidates have been brutal in their criticism of President Obama, Mr. Huntsman promised his “campaign is different” and said he would bring a more civil approach to his fellow Republican hopefuls and to Mr. Obama, for whom he served nearly two years as ambassador to China.
“I respect the president,” he said. “He and I have a difference of opinion on how to help a country we both love. But the question each of us wants the voters to answer is who will be the better president, not who is the better American.”
With intense competition for conservative voters who make up much of the Republican primary electorate, Mr. Huntsman may find himself competing with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for moderate-leaning voters.
Also like Mr. Romney, he may have to deflect worries among some Christian conservative voters about his Mormon religion.
On that front, Mr. Huntsman got some probably unwelcome help Tuesday from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat and a fellow Mormon, who told reporters that “in that race, if I had a choice, I would favor Huntsman over Romney. But I don’t have a choice in that race.”
Mr. Huntsman already is taking fire from some conservative candidates.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican, criticized Mr. Huntsman for failing to sign the Susan B. Anthony List’s pro-life pledge. A majority of major candidates in the race have signed it, but Mr. Huntsman, Mr. Romney, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and businessman Herman Cain have not.
Mr. Huntsman will have tremendous ground to make up. A Zogby poll released Tuesday of nearly 1,000 likely primary voters found him at the bottom of the pack, with 2 percent support, tied with Mr. Johnson and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota led the field with 24 percent, followed by Mr. Romney and Mr. Cain at 15 percent each, and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas at 13 percent.
In his brief announcement speech, Mr. Huntsman pointed to his record of cutting taxes and preserving Utah’s AAA bond rating during his nearly five years as governor.
He called for a tax code and regulation overhaul at the national level but stayed away from any specifics on that and other big issues that are important to Republican voters.
He also seemed to stake out a less adventurous stance for the U.S. in world affairs by saying the country should not disengage. “We believe the best long-term national security strategy is rebuilding our core here at home,” he said.