Jon Huntsman promises civility but hits hard at Obama policies

Republican presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman, interviewed by CBN News' "The Brody File," prior to the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in Washington, D.C.
Jon Huntsman
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman announces GOP bid at Liberty State Park, Tuesday, June 21, 2011 in Jersey City, N.J. 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.
AP Photo/Mel Evans

Updated at 5:15 p.m. ET

Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor and President Obama's former ambassador to China, officially announced his presidential campaign today with a promise to run a civil campaign -- without shying away from criticizing Mr. Obama's policies.

"I don't think you need to run down anyone's reputation to run for president," Huntsman said today at Liberty State Park in New Jersey, with the Statue of Liberty in the background. "Of course we'll have our disagreements. I respect my fellow Republican candidates. And I respect the president... But the question each of us wants the voters to answer is who will be the better president; not who's the better American."

The moderate Republican squarely addressed his relationship with Mr. Obama, which is sure to be one of his biggest challenges in the Republican primaries. While said he would refrain from dragging his former boss through the mud, Huntsman made clear he's ready to challenge Mr. Obama on critical issues like the economy and the continuing war in Afghanistan.

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"We're at war, ladies and gentleman," Huntsman said. "We must manage the end of these conflicts without repeating past mistakes that made our engagement longer and sacrifices greater than they needed to be. We believe the best long term national security strategy is rebuilding our core here at home."

By taking a more anti-interventionist position than Mr. Obama, Huntsman is staking a claim to represent one side of a growing rift within the Republican party on foreign policy. Polls show Americans are growing increasingly restless with the large U.S. presence in Afghanistan. Mr. Obama plans to announce tomorrow his plan for withdrawing some troops.

The former governor also challenged the president on the economy, warning that "hard decisions" must be made to "avert disaster."

Otherwise, he said, "in less than a decade, every dollar of federal revenue will go to covering the costs of Medicare, Social Security and interest payments on our debt. Meanwhile, we'll sink deeper in debt to pay for everything else - from national security to disaster relief."

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Huntsman touted his record in Utah, saying he balanced the state budget and cut taxes. "And by many accounts we became the best state for business and the best managed state in America," he said. "We proved government doesn't have to choose between fiscal responsibility and economic growth."

Huntsman evoked the memory of President Ronald Reagan with his announcement -- Reagan kicked off his own 1980 presidential bid at Liberty Park.

But Huntsman's largely positive, forward-looking rhetoric also seemed to allude to Mr. Obama's own re-election campaign: "We can and will own the future," Huntsman said, perhaps trying to one-up Mr. Obama's recent mantra of "winning the future."

While he is a seasoned politician, it was clear today that Huntsman is new to the presidential race. His staff this morning mistakenly gave members of the media press passes that incorrectly spelled Huntsman's first name. The passes, which read "John Huntsman for President," were quickly re-collected after the error was caught.

After his speech at Liberty State Park, Huntsman embarked on the campaign trail to a rally in Exeter, New Hampshire, where he told reporters that running for president is "pretty intimidating," CBS News' Fernando Suarez reports.

Comparing the decision to bungee jumping, Huntsman said, "You tie that knot around your ankle just at the end of the bridge and then you leap."