Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. with two of his daughters -- Asha, front,… (Shannon Stapleton / Reuters )
Reporting from Jersey City, N.J. — Jon Huntsman Jr. ceremonially launched his presidential campaign Tuesday with the Statue of Liberty as his backdrop. But more telling was what figuratively stood to the Republican's right: the rest of the GOP's 2012 field.
Huntsman's long-shot candidacy rests, in large part, on a gamble about positioning. Utah's former governor and President Obama's former ambassador to China has staked out the turf to the left of the other GOP candidates, a move that could help him were he to win his party's nomination but that may well prevent him from getting it.
"Today, I'm a candidate for the office of president of the United States of America," he said from a stage overlooking New York harbor in Liberty State Park. "My kids can't believe I just said that," he added. He repeated the lines four hours later in New Hampshire, a state key to his chances.
Huntsman, 51, is waging what he says will be a different sort of campaign. An expensively produced campaign video, used to introduce him to a small invited crowd of friends and supporters, borrowed from Obama by describing Huntsman as a "no drama" politician — in contrast to his often-combative and partisan competitors.
"I don't think you need to run down someone's reputation in order to run for the office of president," Huntsman told the crowd.
But his three-minute commercial took clear aim at GOP front-runner Mitt Romney, casting Huntsman as a former businessman and elected official who didn't flip-flop, created jobs instead of buying them (as private-equity executives like Romney are accused of doing) and pushed a free-market healthcare plan without a mandate like that backed by the former Massachusetts governor.
"Ah, if others had only chosen that path," narrator and actor Brian Dennehy intoned over video of a motorcyclist — Huntsman often rides — kicking up dust through the red-rock landscape of Utah's Monument Valley.
In an email sent just before the ceremony, Huntsman told supporters, "You'll hear things you won't be hearing from any other campaign." On Tuesday that included dreamy theme music, slow-paced and heavy with strings, played over loudspeakers as the candidate and his photogenic family strolled a grassy field to the event site and cameras rolled.
"This isn't 'Stars and Stripes Forever,' on purpose," said Fred Davis, the California adman who commissioned the music for the campaign. "Everything about Jon Huntsman is an atypical politician."
Huntsman drew mostly tonal contrasts with his rivals in a 13-minute announcement speech that touched briefly on reforming taxes and government regulation and ending U.S. combat deployments overseas "without repeating past mistakes" that lengthened military engagements.
Huntsman didn't mention emotionally charged social issues, including his support for same-sex civil unions, a position that puts him at odds with his party's socially conservative base. Also unmentioned, in the backyard of Ellis Island, was immigration; that issue too could cause problems for Huntsman, who signed a law creating a special Utah driver's license for illegal immigrants.
A more significant hurdle is likely to be his service to Obama, a clear liability in a party whose primary voters have a visceral distaste for the Democratic incumbent. "I respect the president," Huntsman said. "He and I have a difference of opinion on how to help the 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."
His presidential run, which informally began last month, is taken seriously by other politicians, despite his late start. Huntsman earned good marks as governor of Utah, has service in three Republican administrations on his resume and has more foreign policy experience than the other GOP candidates.
The Palo Alto native — his grandfather served as mayor — is the son of a billionaire industrialist from Salt Lake City. Huntsman, fluent in Mandarin as a result of a Mormon missionary tour in Taiwan, served as ambassador to Singapore under the first President Bush and as deputy U.S. trade representative under the second.
His first test as a national candidate will be financial. He's hoping to tap a lucrative network of Mormon donors — in competition with Romney — as well as past supporters of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and the Bush family who have yet to commit, said Tom Loeffler, who was national finance chairman of McCain's presidential campaign and has a leading role in Huntsman's drive.
But starting late poses a challenge, since "all the other candidates, by and large, have been building campaign organizations for years," said Loeffler, a Washington lobbyist and former Texas congressman.
Also untested is Huntsman's ability to energize primary voters with a low-key approach that relies on support from centrists.
Independents and Democrats can vote in the first primary in New Hampshire, which in the past has been a crucial advantage for more moderate conservatives — including McCain, whose longtime strategist John Weaver is guiding Huntsman. Unlike McCain, who had deep ties to New Hampshire voters, Huntsman has yet to make much of an impression there.
Huntsman is a father of seven, including adopted children from India and China. An email to supporters this week, sent under the name of his 23-year-old daughter Liddy, promised "a shockingly different campaign."
But there was a certain familiarity to his announcement tour. The spot where he formally entered the race under a cloudy morning sky was the same one Ronald Reagan chose for his general election campaign announcement in 1980. From there, Huntsman flew to a rally at the town hall in Exeter, N.H., which Bob Dole picked as a venue on his 1996 kickoff tour and Ron Paul visited on his announcement swing last month.