Huntsman's Campaign Wastes No Time, Hits The Road

After formally announcing he is seeking the Republican presidential nomination, Jon Huntsman went straight to New Hampshire Tuesday to start drumming up votes. On Wednesday, he travels to South Carolina. It's a critical stop for the former Utah governor and former ambassador to China because he doesn't plan to campaign in Iowa.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

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Jon Huntsman is following a different path than many other Republican presidential contenders. The former Utah governor served as President Obama's ambassador to China before declaring his candidacy yesterday.

His advisors want to position him now as a conservative, but civil voice. He's also following a different plan of campaign than some other candidates. He is skipping the Iowa caucuses, but campaigning yesterday in New Hampshire and today in South Carolina, both early primary states.

NPR's Tovia Smith has more.

TOVIA SMITH: As a former ambassador, Huntsman may be used to barreling through time zones, but it couldn't have prepared him for his time-warping trip from quiet diplomat to presidential contender.

Mr. JON HUNTSMAN (Republican Presidential Candidate): I feel a little bit like I've just gone bungee jumping for the first time. It's pretty intimidating. You tie that knot under your ankle, you stand on edge of the bridge, and then you leap.

SMITH: Huntsman jumped into the race yesterday, echoing the promise to make America great again made by former President Ronald Reagan, who Huntsman used to work for, though Huntsman put it more bluntly, saying he's wants to help the nation, quote, "avert disaster."

Mr. HUNTSMAN: For the first time in our history, we are passing on to the next generation a country that is less powerful, less compassionate, less competitive and less confident than the one we got. And all I'm here to say is that this is totally, totally unacceptable and this is totally un-American.

(Soundbite of applause)

SMITH: Huntsman took a shot - indirectly - at his most recent boss, President Obama, saying the nation needs more than just hope, though Huntsman also insisted his campaign would take the high road.

Mr. HUNTSMAN: I don't think you need to run down reputation in order to run for presidency.

SMITH: We'll disagree, Huntsman said, but I respect my fellow Republicans.

Mr. HUNTSMAN: And I respect the president.

(Soundbite of applause)

SMITH: The polite applause notwithstanding, giving the president props may hurt Huntsman, at least in the eyes of some GOP faithful, like Judy Scott. She applauds Huntsman's conservative stands on abortion and guns, for example, but has trouble getting past his last job as an ambassador appointed by President Obama.

Ms. JUDY SCOTT: Anybody that's with Obama bothers me, yes. You have to believe with the administration, or you shouldn't be working with them.

SMITH: But most New Hampshire Republicans tend to be more moderate, so far leaning toward Mitt Romney. The two candidates have a lot in common: their Mormon faith, Utah roots, privilege and wealth and a tendency to flip flop - at least according to Democrats.

Huntsman is trying to distinguish himself as the more genuine of the two. He was introduced yesterday as a no-flip, no-flop, motorcycle-riding rocker who dropped out of high school to play in his band.

Mr. JAKE WAGONER: I think he has a bigger cool factor than most of the other candidates do in the field.

SMITH: Eighteen-year-old college student Jake Wagoner left yesterday's event absolutely gushing, not only about Huntsman's image, but also his more moderate stand on some issues like his support for civil unions and belief in climate change.

Mr. WAGONER: He's bold. He's very charismatic. And I think maybe we very much do have a John F. Kennedy for the Republican side, you know. He certainly has the potential to be.

SMITH: But even if he does, Huntsman's got a ways to go in convincing other voters.

Ms. SYLVIA IRELAND: We don't really know who he is.

SMITH: Across the street from his event, Huntsman has zero name recognition with GOP voters like Sylvia and Nathan Ireland.

Mr. NATHAN IRELAND: First time I've heard of him.

SMITH: But Huntsman says expect his campaign and his support - to grow exponentially now. His website launched yesterday, and the campaign has just begun distributing signs and bumper stickers. Huntsman couldn't hide his delight yesterday when he spotted one.

Mr. HUNTSMAN: Cool. First one I've seen.

SMITH: But the car belonged to Huntsman's campaign. In a state where candidates typically spend years wooing voters one by one before they ever announce, Huntsman's got a lot of catching up to do.

Tovia Smith, NPR News.

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