JERSEY CITY, N.J., AND EXETER, N.H. — On his first day as a presidential candidate, Jon Huntsman wandered toward the back of his charter jet to meet the press. Reporters crammed into the aisles, hoisting their cameras and jabbing microphones in his face. Huntsman, wearing a black-and-white checkered shirt and holding a piece of string cheese, seemed unfazed by the scrum, staying to answer questions and swap jokes even after his handlers tried to shoo him to safety. It was six hours into his campaign, and Democrats had already begun slamming him for supporting the House Republican budget. “There’s always a lot of hype the first day,” Huntsman said. “It’s a combination of hyperbole and being dumped on.”
His aides fomented some of that hype, scripting an opening act packed with pageantry. More than an hour before his campaign launched at Liberty State Park in Jersey City, members of the media staked out spots on the risers as a small band of flag-twirling supporters and a cluster of college Republicans (bused in to fill out the patchy crowd) waited for a glimpse of Huntsman. The former Utah governor was introduced by a 3-min. 16-sec. video created by ad maven Fred Davis, in which a now familiar biker slashes through an ochre valley as a narrator heaps compliments on Huntsman, “the ultimate conservative.” Again, it portrayed him as the cool kid. “This guy is different,” it said. “This is a guy who can win.”
Huntsman’s entrance was carefully choreographed. He arrived with his wife and six of their seven children, each wearing a different bright color, a kaleidoscope of all-American good looks. They slowly crossed a grass lawn, pausing awkwardly to gaze at a statue, and then Huntsman was onstage, flanked by fluttering flags, with the Statue of Liberty standing sentry across the harbor. It was the same spot where Ronald Reagan kicked off his general-election campaign three decades earlier, and Huntsman’s aides hoped to recapture the magic with a grand gesture that positioned Huntsman as an heir to Reagan’s legacy. “I’m a big believer that the only way to beat Barack Obama is to go bigger than him,” says John Weaver, Huntsman’s top strategist. “That’s one of the primary differences between us and our rivals.”
One of the ways Team Huntsman is trying to go big is by using the press as a prop. Few candidates have the clout to carry some 30 national reporters and a battery of fundraisers on a private charter right out of the gate. Doing so when you’re a “margin-of-error candidate,” as Huntsman often calls himself, is even rarer. Politics is perception, and Weaver, a former adviser to John McCain — who famously called the press his “base” — may be hoping that the entourage tailing Huntsman will create a tableau of legitimacy for voters and prospective donors. It suggests that Huntsman, who will be ramping up his fundraising efforts in July, is someone worth watching, even if the polls suggest otherwise for now.
On Day One, the candidate’s low-key performances didn’t quite match the attendant spectacle. His announcement speech was polished but not rousing, earning subdued applause for its stock tributes to American greatness. Civility, one of his cornerstone themes, is not exactly a controversial concept, and even Huntsman’s critique of Obama, for whom he professed respect, was gentle. “He and I have a difference of opinion on how to help a country we both love,” Huntsman said. “But the question each of us wants the voters to answer is who will be the better President, not who’s the better American.” Though the candidate flashed few first-day jitters, the rollout was marred by minor hiccups. Huntsman’s name was misspelled on a press packet. A website featured dummy text Tuesday morning, and the candidate at one point referenced the wrong state (New York is on the other side of the Hudson from Jersey City). Shortly before his announcement speech, the power went out, only to wink back on just in time.
Huntsman laid out the planks of his platform in general terms, promising to introduce “bold, broad” changes to tax and regulatory structures, safeguard U.S. energy independence and prioritize education reform. Obama’s former top envoy to China highlighted his experience in Beijing, argued that military conflicts abroad were sapping resources that should be used to “rebuild our core here at home” and touted his stewardship of a business-friendly state with a buoyant economy.
In Exeter, a town of some 15,000 with a picturesque main drag, Huntsman — introduced as “Superman” by local county commissioner Maureen Barrows — repeated his pitch inside a sweltering town hall with rickety ceiling fans and walls the color of split-pea soup. The stop was no surprise. Huntsman, who is sitting out Iowa, has visited New Hampshire three times, and has no real path to the nomination without a victory or a strong second-place finish in the Granite State. “We’re all in in New Hampshire,” Weaver says. “We’ll be on it like white on rice.” The event came off better in New Hampshire. The music was brighter, the applause a little louder, and the hail of confetti at the end of his remarks gave the event a festive feel that was missing in New Jersey. But several members of the crowd issued a mixed verdict: Smart guy. Beautiful family. Impressive record. Not sure about the substance.
“Right now, I don’t see any negatives,” offered Bernard Gouchoe, a retired physician.
“He said all the right words and phrases — like all the rest of them do,” said Leonard Fleischer, another retiree.
“A nice man,” said Sid Glassner, who added that there was “nothing very interesting” about the speech.
Nobody mentioned the moderate policy positions that pundits cite in claiming that Huntsman is a poor fit for this primary cycle, including his prior support for capping carbon emissions and his backing of civil unions. (During the press gaggle, Huntsman said he would “respect” the right of individual states to pass laws legalizing gay marriage, as New York appears poised to do.) He is an unknown quantity in an unsettled field. It’s too early to know if he’s a credible contender, but on his first day, the heavy stagecraft and NBA-size entourage made him look like one.