As rivals attack, Huntsman keeps the gloves on

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman waves as he announces his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, Tuesday, June 21, 2011, at Liberty State Park in Jersey City, N.J.
AP Photo/Mel Evans
AP Photo/Mel Evans

For Republicans candidates seeking to unseat President Obama, there's one overriding issue: the economy. Polls have repeatedly shown that not only is the economy (and the corresponding issue of jobs) the number one concern for voters--but also that a majority of Americans disapprove of how the president is handling it.

And if they needed any encouragement, there's history to fall back on: No president has been reelected with unemployment numbers this bad since Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the Great Depression.

So today's grim unemployment report--the economy added only 18,000 jobs in June--was like shooting fish in a barrel for Republicans, and they all fired away. Within minutes of the report's release, the GOP presidential contenders were using words like "failed" and "failure" to describe Mr. Obama's performance and his policies.

With one exception: Jon Huntsman.

Huntsman is vowing to run a different campaign, one in which he tries to stay above the fray with a "positive message," that--as a spokesman put it today--doesn't resort to "childish phrases" that other Republicans are using to blast the current occupant of the Oval Office.

Huntsman's statement on today's job numbers illustrates how different his approach will be. But a number of Republican analysts say it also illustrates some of the problems his approach could present going forward.

This is as tough as Huntsman got on Mr. Obama: "Even in great hardship, the American people have been extraordinarily patient in waiting for the better and brighter times promised to them by this administration. Their patience has rightly worn thin."

For comparison, look at what some of the other candidates had to say this morning. Mitt Romney was most forceful--not only slamming how the president "failed to get this economy moving again," but also focusing directly on adviser David Plouffe, who said this week that "unemployment rates or even monthly jobs numbers" don't matter to the average American.

Said Romney: "If David Plouffe were working for me, I would fire him and then he could experience firsthand the pain of unemployment. His comments are an insult to the more than 20 million people who are out of work, underemployed or who have simply stopped looking for jobs. With their cavalier attitude about the economy, the White House has turned the audacity of hope into the audacity of indifference."

Michele Bachmann also took a hard line, calling the unemployment report "another stark reminder of the failure" of Obama's economic policies, which were built on his "broken promise" to the American people to create jobs. She was long on specifics, blasting the stimulus package and Obama's "legacy of massive spending and debt."

Even Mr. Nice Guy, Tim Pawlenty, came out strong: "President Obama is out of answers and running out of time. His policies are not creating the necessary jobs and he has no plan to do anything about it. We will have continued anemic growth and disappointing job creation so long as Barack Obama is president."

Then there's Huntsman. Not once does he mention Mr. Obama by name, much less skewer one of his advisers. He doesn't use the words "failure" or "failed." Instead, he politely says "rising unemployment rates and extremely anemic job creation" are--here you go--"not acceptable."

That's civil. It's also everything Huntsman--the motorcyclist and indie rocker who dropped out of high school before going to the Ivy League, business and politics--has promised for his campaign from the beginning.

But if he keeps that up, here's the question some Republicans are starting to have for Huntsman. How is he going to get traction from traditional Republican voters--not only in the primary against more forceful critics of Mr. Obama, but also if he were running head-to-head in the general election against the president himself?

Huntsman clearly is going after the independents, but as one Republican strategist not affiliated with any campaign told me: You can't win with only the swing voters. Huntsman has to get the base, too--and the Republican base is, to put it mildly, Very Anti-Obama.

It's hard to see the base getting excited about a moderate Republican who seems willing to criticize his fellow Republicans, but not the Democrat in the White House. That's true for the Republican primary, and it's true for the general election.

"Elections are about contrasts," another Republican strategist told me this week. "To beat someone--especially an incumbent--you have to draw those contrasts and delineate your clear differences."

And when you're Mr. Obama's former ambassador to China, as Huntsman was, you could also add "especially to beat an incumbent for whom you worked."

After all, when the deputy sheriff decides to take on the county sheriff, it's generally because he's disgusted by his leadership and thinks he can do a lot better--and then goes on to make all that clear.

Tim Miller, a spokesman for Huntsman, called such talk "silly." He said Huntsman would easily distinguish himself from Mr. Obama and wouldn't hesitate to criticize his policies--though, Miller added, Huntsman won't be using "childish phrases" or in such a "boorish and childish a manner as some folks."

"His record is very different from Barack Obama, and so is his vision for country," Miller said. "He's going to talk about that in this campaign, and he's going to do that without using childish phrases. Americans are looking for someone who is going to offer a positive message."

Miller wouldn't say which Republicans candidates he thought were using the childish phrases or had the boorish and childish manner--only that was talking generally.

But it's that kind of attitude that's rubbing some Republicans the wrong way. Right now, Huntsman seems pretty good for Barack Obama to have around. He isn't bashing the President, and he's implying that Republicans who engage in such childish talk are being uncivil.

And here's another reason they say Huntsman is good for Mr. Obama. The more the White House builds up Huntsman as the reasonable and formidable candidate who can best appeal to independents, the more they can imply that the other Republicans are on the fringe--and therefore unacceptable to independents.

As the president fights to keep independents from continuing to slip away from him--something he must do to win reelection--that's not a bad strategy for him. It's just not so great for the other Republican candidates who aren't named Jon Huntsman.

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    Jan Crawford is CBS News Chief Political and Legal Correspondent. She is from "Crossroads," Alabama.