By Philip Elliot
Toeing the 2012 line, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman sounded like a full-fledged White House candidate Saturday set to join the field this month as he mapped out a campaign strategy that bypasses early-voting Iowa to focus on New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida.
In an Associated Press interview during a visit to New Hampshire's rural North Country, Huntsman said his party's nomination race has "never been this wide open." The unsettled nature, he said, benefits the kind of campaign he's preparing to undertake.
"That uncertainty is good. It allows people to get in, assess, express their opinions, see whether their ideas rise or fall. ... It's unlike any other election cycle in recent history," Huntsman said between stops.
Just five weeks removed as President Barack Obama's ambassador to China, Huntsman said the GOP campaign at this point is about personalities, not policy, but that will change as the field firms up.
"This is the marketplace of political ideas. This is how America operates," Huntsman said. "It's a free market. It's free-wheeling. From the outside, it looks unpredictable. ... There's a circus-like free market."
He's not rushing to join that circus. He's skipping a debate June 13 in New Hampshire; he said he won't be an official candidate by then.
Iowa's lead-off caucuses are out for him, Huntsman said, because of his opposition to subsidies for corn-based ethanol. Why waste time trying to court Iowa voters who see that support as a way of life and a deal-breaker, he said.
"I'm not competing in Iowa for a reason," he said.
Look for him a lot in New Hampshire, where independent voters who can cast ballots in either party's primary are the largest political bloc. They twice rewarded Arizona Sen. John McCain in his presidential campaigns; many of Huntsman's advisers are veterans of those runs.
Then it's on to South Carolina, which is open to anyone, and then to Florida, which he called his "make-or-break state." Television ads hold huge sway in Florida and Huntsman, a successful and wealthy businessman, could blanket the airwaves with ads if he makes it that far.
During a three-day New Hampshire swing to introduce himself to voters who have the nation's first primary, he held court at breakfast, indulged in ice cream at a fair and dropped by a veterans' hall.
That kind of campaigning, a hallmark of this state, contrasted with former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's visit last week, when she was treated more as a celebrity that a potential contender, or former Massachusetts' Gov. Mitt Romney's choreographed race-entering announcement on Thursday.
Huntsman is trying to portray himself as what an "honest broker" willing to say what others will not. For instance:
He said the next budget should consider cuts in defense spending, sacrosanct for hawkish Republicans. "If we can't find cuts in the defense budget, we're not looking carefully enough," he said.
He isn't eager to dispatch U.S. military might. "We need to look at a map and say, realistically, 'Where do we need to be?' They all add up and they all cost us something."
America's economic decline hasn't been solely Democrats' fault. "It's happened now during many administrations. ... It's taken a lot of presidents to get us where we are today, a lot of deployments, a lot of wars, a lot engagements. You add them all up."
He said he understands that approach may not be the best political course.
"If you go down talking about it, that's OK. What is important is that you're honest with the American people. They're ready for that kind of discussion," Huntsman said.
Huntsman said his role will be to make certain that the candidates are talking seriously about fixing Washington, from spending to entitlement programs such as Social Security that many have declared off limits.
"If you're looking to cut a family budget or a business table, you put everything on the table. You don't automatically dismiss things as sacred cows," he said. "It's just not intellectually defensible. ... Any other approach would smack of politics. I don't think we can afford to do that."
Huntsman, who served three Republican administrations, said his time as envoy in Beijing for a Democratic president would not be the disqualifier some have predicted.
He cited Gen. David Petraeus, Obama's pick to lead the CIA, and outgoing Defense Secretary Bob Gates; their service dates to the George W. Bush administration.
"They are representing every American's interests," Huntsman said.
They are not, however, running for president against the man who put them in their current jobs.
"I'm surprised that we've gotten to a point where we don't put our country first and put our party first. ... Accepting an assignment from everyone's president during a time of war, during a time of economic hardship is putting your country first.
"I won't shy away from that," he said. "If someone wants to hold that against me, they can."
He said in the interview that he wasn't certain about his presidential ambitions before accepting the China post.
"Sometimes you don't see yourself the way other people do. It wasn't something that was a burning desire within, you know?"