GWEN IFILL: Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman ended months of speculation today by officially launching his campaign for president.
Huntsman was joined on his walk to the stage by his wife, Mary Kaye, and the couple’s seven children, the venue, New Jersey’s Liberty Park, which Ronald Reagan used to launch his 1980s general election campaign.
The choice was no accident.
JON HUNTSMAN, (R) presidential candidate: What we now need is leadership that trusts in our strength, leadership that doesn’t surprise Washington has all of the solutions to our problems, but rather looks to local solutions from our cities, towns, and states, leadership that knows we need more than hope, leadership that knows we need answers.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
GWEN IFILL: Huntsman, a twice-elected governor of Utah, most recently served as President Obama’s ambassador to China.
When Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Washington earlier this year, the president took pains to praise the man who by then was rumored to be challenging him.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: So, I couldn’t be happier with the ambassador’s service. And I’m sure he will be very successful in whatever endeavors he chooses in the future.
BARACK OBAMA: And I’m sure that him having worked so well with me will be a great asset in any Republican primary.
GWEN IFILL: In the late ’70s and early ’80s, Huntsman spent two years in Taiwan as a Mormon missionary. And he is fluent in Mandarin Chinese.
And in the days leading up to today’s announcement, Huntsman highlighted some even more unconventional parts of his biography in a series of obscure Web videos. Another video posted to his campaign website mentions his past musical ambitions.
NARRATOR: Left high school a shade shy of graduation to travel with his rock band, “Wizard” — not your typical politician here.
GWEN IFILL: Today, Huntsman pledged to take the high road in the coming campaign.
JON HUNTSMAN: I don’t think you need to run down someone’s reputation in order to run for the office of president. Of course we will have our disagreements. That’s what campaigns are all about.
But I want you to know that I respect my fellow Republican candidates and I respect the president of the United States. 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.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
GWEN IFILL: The first week of Huntsman’s campaign tour will take him to early nominating states, such as New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida, and Nevada, as well as back to his home state of Utah.
And joining us now to discuss Jon Huntsman’s presidential prospects is NewsHour Political Editor David Chalian.
Welcome back, David.
DAVID CHALIAN: Thank you.
GWEN IFILL: First, we should be clear, that wasn’t Jon Huntsman on that motocross vehicle there going through…
DAVID CHALIAN: That’s right. In fact, his wife, I don’t think, lets him ride the motocross anymore, yes.
GWEN IFILL: So there you go.
GWEN IFILL: So, who is Jon Huntsman and why is he running?
DAVID CHALIAN: That was the question that he was trying to answer today. “Who am I?” basically is what he was saying. And he wanted to fill that in.
That’s why we saw the whole family stand up there with him. He’s got a really impressive resume going, right? He served as a Reagan political aide. He was the ambassador to Singapore for George H.W. Bush, deputy trade representative for George W. Bush, and, as you know and as you said there in the piece there, the most recent ambassador to China, so — in addition to his Utah governorship.
So, he does have this broad sort of political resume that he brings to the table.
GWEN IFILL: Was he considered a good governor of Utah?
DAVID CHALIAN: Well, he’s going to run on that record.
He’s — it’s been awarded by Pew as sort of the best-managed state during his time there in the country. He’s going to run on that. You’re going to see it in ads, in all of his direct-mail pieces to voters.
But he has got a peculiar path to the nomination, because you can’t just win, as you know, a nomination based on your biography or telling the story of who you are. You have got to go through the voters eventually.
And he’s not in lockstep with Republican primary voters on some issues.
GWEN IFILL: Are Democrats or, more likely, other Republicans going to bring up, as the president did in that little clip there, the fact that he actually worked for President Obama, who he now wants to replace?
DAVID CHALIAN: Oh, there’s no doubt. It’s going to be the easiest thing for every other contender for the Republican nomination on a debate stage to say, “Well, while you were working for President Obama.”
But, you know, I don’t think that’s his hardest part, the sort of biggest hurdle he has. I think he has answered that question time and again now about a president, even one from the other party, calling upon him for service. And I think that’s an answer voters will buy. I think it’s on some issues where he may have a trickier time.
GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s talk about those issues, because he is selling himself as a moderate in this race. And we have seen a lot of people who are farther to the right.
He favors things like — he says that climate change or global warming is manmade, favors civil unions, something which is not orthodoxy right now, at least on the right part of the Republican Party. Is there a sweet spot for someone like Jon Huntsman?
DAVID CHALIAN: Well, there may be. You can see the way he’s approaching it. And you’re right to highlight those issues.
He’s not going to Iowa. He said he’s not going to compete in Iowa. Now, he claims it’s because he’s opposed to ethanol subsidies, and you can’t get through Iowa without that. But it’s because the electorate, the caucus-going electorate in Iowa is more conservative and a conservative part of the Republican Party.
So, he’s going straight to New Hampshire, trying to appeal to an electorate where independents can also vote, to try to appeal to that middle of the road.
If he can navigate his way through these waters, win New Hampshire, on to South Carolina maybe — he’s trying build an organization there — and then a big state like Florida, where he hopes to appeals to sort of a middle-of-the-road swathe as well, he could start being on his way to the nomination.
GWEN IFILL: Are — both he and Mitt Romney are Mormons, of the Mormon faith. That would be a first. Would that — is that something which — we have any evidence that Americans are ready for that big a change?
DAVID CHALIAN: A Gallup poll out just in the last couple of days shows that about one out of every five Americans, 20 percent, say that they wouldn’t support a nominee of their party who is a Mormon, would vote against them.
But the vast majority is fine with this. And, in fact, we have seen those numbers get smaller, those that actually wouldn’t vote for someone because of their Mormon faith. So, I think, since Mitt Romney ran the last time around, the country has gotten even a little bit more comfortable with that, the polls show.
But it is something that’s again part of the biography. And he’s putting biography front and center. And so there will be an exploration of that.
GWEN IFILL: And his campaign headquarters is going to be in Orlando, Fla. What do we read into that?
DAVID CHALIAN: Well, it’s where his wife is from. So, that’s why, he says.
But it’s a key state. It’s a key state for the nomination for the Republican Party. It’s going to be early in the process. And it’s a key state, of course, in the general election. Should Jon Huntsman get there, he will be well-positioned in that battleground state.
GWEN IFILL: And then there were how many candidates now on the Republican side?
DAVID CHALIAN: I guess we’re up to eight now maybe, yes.
GWEN IFILL: Up to eight major candidates and a lot more.
DAVID CHALIAN: Eight major candidates, yes, exactly.
GWEN IFILL: OK.
David Chalian, thanks a lot.
DAVID CHALIAN: My pleasure.