ORLANDO—The candidate was running late. Both ardent supporters and curious onlookers packed into his new campaign headquarters, shifting uncomfortably as the size of the crowd overpowered the capacity of the air conditioner.
All par for the course on the campaign trail—except for the presidential candidate himself.
Jon Huntsman gave brief, low-key remarks on Thursday night, vowing to be respectful to his Republican rivals and President Obama. His wife, who hails from this central Florida metropolis, spoke longer than he did. Later that night, in front of a captive audience of about 150 Republican activists, Huntsman quickly thanked them for their participation and demurred, “I’m not here for a political speech.’’ The audiences, for the most part, were appreciative but not aroused.
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Will Huntsman’s slow-burn model of campaigning catch fire in a political environment against rivals who are frequently slinging explosives? His four day, five-state rollout as an official candidate, which ended on Friday in Nevada, has raised, but not yet answered, the question. In a primary season dominated by tea party ideologues and religious conservatives, Huntsman is trying to position himself as the candidate of reason.
“He’s clearly not going to motivate people with soaring speeches, and he’s already said it won’t be through fiery rhetoric,’’ said Republican strategist Todd Harris, who has advised former presidential candidates such as John McCain and Fred Thompson. “They must be betting on voters falling in love with his ideas and policies. To pull that off, you have to show real policy muscle, well beyond what any candidate has done so far.’’
Huntsman, the former ambassador to China and ex-governor of Utah, showed in Florida he knows how to play to a crowd, proclaiming that he would be the first major Republican candidate with a national campaign headquarters in the Sunshine State. “Florida is where this race is going to be won by the Huntsman campaign,’’ he declared at his new Orlando headquarters, eliciting cheers from the hometown audience.
But most of his short speech was devoid of the kind of rip-roaring quips or emotional appeals expected at a campaign kickoff aimed at generating buzz. Huntsman made three points about the campaign: It will squarely focus on jobs and the economy. It will be polite. And it will reach out to young voters.
Not exactly fodder for a YouTube video primed to go viral.
“It was too casual for a national campaign headquarters opening,’’ said Matthew Harrison, a 32-year-old publicist who said he wanted to hear much more about Huntsman’s plan to reduce unemployment. "He doesn’t seem to make a connection like I’ve seen with other politicians.’’
Harrison said he was leaning toward the early favorite in the race, Mitt Romney, after seeing Huntsman. “Too mellow,’’ he said.
Asked later why he didn’t give more of a stemwinder, Huntsman said: “It was pretty hot in there, and I saw people wiping the sweat away. A speaker in situations like these needs to get to the point, otherwise you lose folks.’’
Even at his first, more extensive speech as an official presidential candidate earlier in the week overlooking the Statute of Liberty, Huntsman’s laid-back style contrasted with the dramatic backdrop.
But some voters find Huntsman’s calm voice and middle-of-the-road politics refreshing. He’s not too far to the right (he stands by his past support of same-sex civil unions) and he’s not too far to the left (he supports the Medicare overhaul proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.).
“Huntsman does not make inflammatory statements, flail his arms, or feed raw meat to the base,’’ said Ana Navarro, a Republican fundraiser who traveled with Huntsman on Thursday from Miami to Orlando. “People won’t support him because of his dramatic flair, but because of his substance.’’
So far, that aura of credibility comes more from his impressive resume and team of seasoned strategists than from any groundbreaking or detailed policy proposals. Asked to expand on his remarks that President Obama should withdraw faster from Afghanistan, and to describe a “Huntsman doctrine’’ for U.S. military intervention, Huntsman said a foreign-policy speech was in the works.
Besides showcasing Huntsman’s aversion for bomb throwing, his campaign rollout suggested that his equally telegenic wife, Mary Kaye Huntsman, will play a key role. She was comfortable with a microphone in her hand and game for driving home her roots in not just Orlando, but even more hyper-locally, “on Bimini Drive.’’
“I’m going to cut Mary Kate loose and let her work her magic,’’ Huntsman told the gathering of GOP activists. “I don’t think I need to do much more.’’
Huntsman was joking, of course, and complimenting his wife at the same time, but he did leave some people wanting more.
“I can’t say a whole lot,’’ said 69-year-old Mary Smother, after hearing Huntsman. “He didn’t give a lot of information, but I am anxious to learn more about him. I think he didn’t want to take over the meeting.’’
That’s not an impulse typically ascribed to political candidates. Huntsman's bet is that voters are looking for something different.
(Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Mary Kaye Huntsman's name)