ORLANDO — Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman opened his national presidential campaign headquarters in Orlando Thursday, promising the Sunshine State will be top priority for winning the GOP presidential nomination.
It's about time.
Early as it may seem for presidential politicking in Florida, Huntsman is actually lapping the field in terms of attention on Florida. At this point in the last presidential election cycle, Rudy Giuliani had practically made Florida his second home and Mitt Romney had more than a dozen full time staffers based in Florida for months. This year? No one but Huntsman so far is doing much in Florida except raising money.
"How cool is it to be making history: the first Republican presidential campaign to be headquartered in Florida,'' the former ambassador to China told more than 100 people gathered to see him at a downtown Orlando office building. "Florida is where this race is going to be won by the Huntsman campaign."
Huntsman, 51, is selling his record as a conservative, reform-minded governor, with a foreign policy expertise and an unusual emphasis to set him apart in Florida. But Giuliani showed in 2007 that a candidate can't rely on Florida alone to win the nomination. To strike more of a balance, Huntsman said he will campaign hard also in the earlier New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries.
"We have an early-state strategy. I would liken it to running for governor in three states simultaneously," Huntsman said, while campaigning Thursday morning in Miami. "New Hampshire is going to be critical. South Carolina is going to be critical and obviously Florida, I think, will be where the Republican nominee is finally decided. We're going to work it very, very aggressively."
Huntsman only made his candidacy official this week, and has a long way to go to be a real contender in Florida, which is expected to be the fifth election contest in the primary, after Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.
An automated Public Policy Polling survey released Thursday found only two percent of Republican Florida primary voters backed Huntsman, compared to 27 percent for Romney, 17 percent for U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Sarah Palin, 10 percent for businessman and talk radio host Herman Cain, 8 percent for Newt Gingrich, 7 percent for U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and 4 percent for former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
But Huntsman said he plans to spend a lot of time in Florida and will have plenty of surrogates working the state for him.
His wife, Mary Kaye Huntsman, grew up in Orlando and one of his five children, Abigail, is married to a former Dunedin resident and Palm Harbor University High School graduate, Jeff Livingston.
Romney may be the frontrunner, but unlike 2008, he is spending few resources campaigning in Florida. Four years ago, he hired some of Florida top Republican operatives, include longtime Jeb Bush adviser Sally Bradshaw, while this year he has only one nonfundraising staffer in Florida.
"We have a very active campaign in Florida with a team made up of volunteers and paid staff and will be very strong there,'' said Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul. "Our campaign is leaner but stronger than the last election, where Mitt earned a lot of support in the state."
Still, the former Massachusetts governor has antagonized some Florida activists and party regulars by declaring that he will not compete in a non-binding straw poll vote by 3,500 Florida delegates scheduled as part of the Florida GOP's "Presidency 5" weekend in Orlando in September. So far only Huntsman has committed to participate in the straw poll, though Romney will attend a Fox News debate in Orlando during the event.
"If you come for the Fox News debate Thursday night and then don't stay for the straw poll what does that say to people? Do you have some place more important to be?," asked Florida Republican Chairman David Bitner, suggesting the decision will hurt Romney in Florida.
Miami-Dade Republican Party Chairman Erik Fresen, a state representative, called Romney's decision offensive to the state, and in Orlando several activists checking out Huntsman agreed.
"It bothers me a lot, and I think it hurts Romney in Florida. It says he's overconfident and taking things for granted," said Dave Baldauff, a conservative activist from Volusia County.
Florida Republicans tout the Presidency 5 as a crucial indicator — and momentum generator — of how candidates can fare with party activists in a must-win state. Prior winners, including Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bob Dole, have gone on the win the nomination, but aggressive campaigning can mean spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on an officially meaningless election.
Certain grass roots favorites, including Bachmann and Cain, are likely to draw significant support whether or not they campaign, but others may need to save their resources for the early caucuses and primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire.
"Unlike some campaigns, we are not announcing our straw poll strategy,'' said Alex Conant, spokesman for the Pawlenty campaign, which has no paid staff in Florida except fundraising consultants. "We think when Florida voters learn about Gov. Pawlenty's conservative record of results, they will be impressed and we will do very well there."
Huntsman, meanwhile, has snapped up some of Florida's top GOP consultants, including former Rick Scott campaign manager Susie Wiles, former state party executive director David Johnson, and former Romney adviser Marc Reichelderfer.
Huntsman signalled the significance of Florida's straw poll Thursday night by showing up at an Orange County GOP meeting to encourage their participation in the straw poll.
"Team Huntsman is smart to understand the importance of Florida on the path to the nomination and their decision to play in the Presidency 5 straw ballot and to have a visible presence here makes good strategic sense,'' said Bradshaw, the former Bush strategist, who is neutral so far. "Huntsman has to get known in order to be viable, and it's a mistake to wait until the other early primaries play out to do so. You've got to plant your roots here early."
As a national candidate, Huntsman is a work in progress — more comfortable talking about his record cutting taxes and flattening the tax rate in Utah than delving into specifics of issues looming in the future.
On the hot button issue of illegal immigration, Huntsman said he would consider a requirement that employers use the e-Verify system to check the documentation of workers to ensure they're legally employable. Securing the border is crucial, he said, but was vague about what to do with undocumented immigrant already in the country.
"Everybody wants to do what's right with 11 or 12 million people. That's a very difficult sensitive and complicated question," he said.
Huntsman, the son of a billionaire businessman and philanthropist, called for reforming regulations and corporate taxes. But he wouldn't say how or how much he'd like the corporate tax rate to be or what regulations he'd like to reform. Asked about cuts to the space program, Huntsman said space exploration needs to be a priority but he would lay out his platform later.
"We always want to be at the cutting edge of space flight. Today it's an affordability issue," he said.
Skeptics, including several Republicans who turned out to see Huntsman in Florida Thursday, question whether he's too moderate, citing everything from his past support for cap and trade legislation to his family members contributing to Harry Reid's re-election campaign last year.,
Asked about that, Huntsman said he never gave a dime to Reid but family members supported Reid's efforts to promote cancer research.
"My family believes in giving every penny it makes to cancer,'' he said. "And for them that is the most important endeavor in life. They don't belong to any party but the cure cancer party. That's all they care about, and I respect that enormously."
Republican consultant John Dowless, former executive director of the Christian Coalition in Florida, said he is undecided but understands the Huntsman appeal.
"He brings to the table a solid conservative record, and also a demeanor that can win in the general election," Dowless said.
CORRECTION: John Dowless is a former executive director of the Christian Coalition in Florida. In versions of this story appearing earlier in print and online, the nature of his current relationship with the group was described incorrectly.