JERSEY CITY, N.J. >> Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman joined the Republican presidential contest on Tuesday, pledging to run a civil campaign and claiming that he and President Barack Obama both love the United States but have different visions of its future.
Huntsman, who until this spring was Obama’s ambassador to China, entered the fight for the GOP nomination to take on Obama in 2012 at the same venue where Ronald Reagan formally began his general election presidential campaign in 1980. Huntsman, an aide to Reagan who served in two other Republican administrations, had been expected to join the contest for months.
"This is the hour when we choose our future. I’m Jon Huntsman and I’m running for president of the United States," the silver-haired Huntsman said, with the State of Liberty over his shoulder as a backdrop for a made-for-TV announcement.
Huntsman joins a field of GOP contenders led by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a fellow Mormon. Others include former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann. Texas Gov. Rick Perry is exploring a possible bid as well.
Huntsman is positioning himself as a centrist in a largely conservative field — a candidate with deep foreign policy credentials who could have broad appeal to independent voters in a general election contest against Obama.
Huntsman called the America economy "totally unacceptable" and took a gentle swipe at Obama’s 2008 campaign themes of hope and change, saying the country needs "leadership that knows we need more than hope, leadership that knows we need answers."
Huntsman,said he respects Obama but added that he and the president have "a difference of opinion on how to help the country we both love."
But, he added, "The question each of us wants the voters to answer is, ‘Who will be the better president, not who’s the better American.’ "
Huntsman had been flirting with a presidential run for months, and in interviews recently he has criticized U.S. foreign policy, saying the country is overcommitted to world trouble spots. He has also sought to stress his background as a businessman and has said jobs would be a top priority.
"We will not be the first American generation that lets down the next generation," he said, his seven children standing nearby.
"What we need now is leadership that trusts in our strength. Leadership that doesn’t promise Washington has all the solutions to our problems, but rather looks to local solutions in our cities, towns and states."
In a speech with nods to conservatives who hold great sway in the nominating process and independents who are frustrated with partisanship, Huntsman pledged civility.
"Our political debates today are corrosive," Huntsman decried.
"We will conduct this campaign on the high road. I don’t think you need to run down someone’s reputation to run for president."
That’s not to say he would shy from differences with his better-known Republican rivals or the incumbent president he hopes to send home to Chicago in early 2013.
"Of course, we’ll have our disagreements," he said. "That’s what campaigns are all about."