HANOVER, N.H. -- He’s called himself a “margin of error” candidate on more than one occasion, but former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman is working to combat the perception that he can’t win the Republican nomination in 2012 because he’s largely unknown to voters.
Huntsman made his debut Thursday in the first in the nation primary state of New Hampshire, and worked double-time to explain his service as President Obama’s ambassador to China – a position he just left at the end of last month.
“I'm the kind of guy, when asked by my president to stand up and serve my country, when asked, I do it,” Huntsman told potential voters gathered at Jesse’s Restaurant.
Huntsman’s wife, Mary Kaye, was by his side, as were two of the couple’s seven children. The prospective presidential candidate plans a five-day, 12-city introductory New Hampshire blitz. Fellow Mormon Mitt Romney, still waiting to make his bid official, leads in state polls.
California native Huntsman has served under four presidents, starting as a staff assistant in the Reagan administration, working in the Commerce Department and as ambassador to Singapore under George H.W. Bush, and as a deputy trade representative under George W. Bush.
On Thursday, popular Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who recently ducked out of the Republican race himself and is now seen as a potential 2012 kingmaker, dubbed Huntsman a conservative who’s qualified to be president.
But Huntsman shuns labels.
“Look at my record,” implored Huntsman. “Labels and tags are going to be thrown around in politics. They always are. In some cases you have to peek beneath the veneer. You have to look at one's history and one's record. "
But parts of his record trouble staunch conservatives. Huntsman backed a pathway to citizenship for certain illegal immigrants as governor, which many Republicans consider amnesty. He defended the Obama administration’s 2009 stimulus and accepted funds, along with Florida’s ex-Republican Gov. Charlie Crist and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California. At the time, Huntsman actually wanted the stimulus to be larger, but now says he was only talking about the tax cuts in the package.
Huntsman also backed a cap-and-trade climate initiative with several western states and four Canadian provinces - which he now concedes didn't work regionally and could hurt the recovery nationally
“We cannot rush into policy choices that would have an adverse affect on economic growth,” Huntsman admits.
In Keene Friday morning, located in the south central part of the state, Huntsman told Fox News that he unequivocally supports House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s plan. “The thing that scares me more than the Ryan budget is the accumulating debt.”
Huntsman also said that without a doubt, he would work to repeal Obama’s national health care law. “Take it out. It's too heavy. It's too expensive. It puts too much of a burden on businesses and individuals.”
And when it comes to foreign policy, Huntsman says there are plenty of examples where his views differ from Obama’s. For instance, Huntsman said he would not have become involved in the Libyan civil war. However, Huntsman does think the U.S. is at a crossroads when it comes to the war in Afghanistan and its effect on the deficit.
“[We need] a foreign policy that is based on what is affordable and what is basically in our national interest, and we have to evaluate every corner of the world through that prism: What can we afford to do these days?” Huntsman said. “If we're weak at home, we cannot project power abroad.”
It was Huntsman, who at the 2008 GOP convention, helped formally nominate Sarah Palin as John McCain’s vice president. Now, much of McCain’s camp is working for him. John Weaver ran McCain’s entire campaign in 2000 and half of it in 2008. McCain’s rapid response guru is also on Team Huntsman, along with McCain’s Iowa communications director, Tim Miller.
New Hampshire also marked Huntsman’s first news conference on the campaign trail. He made it clear that while other candidates are competing for the votes of Tea Party conservatives, he hears the voters’ calls for something different – something he thinks he can deliver.
“Maybe someone who believes in civility – that the yelling and screaming should come to an end,” Huntsman said.