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First Thoughts: Who is Jon Huntsman?

With his presidential announcement today, just who is Jon Huntsman?... Where is he on the issues?... Who are his supporters?... What’s his message?... But with such an unsettled field, why not?... Huntsman makes his bid official from Liberty State Park, NJ at 10:00 am ET, then heads to New Hampshire… Obama to deliver Afghanistan troop-withdrawal speech on Wednesday… Update on the debt-ceiling fight… McCain doesn’t back down from claim that illegal immigrants are causing the Arizona wildfires… And Chris Christie hits a new low in the Quinnipiac poll.

*** Who is Jon Huntsman? Only two months since stepping down from his post as ambassador to China, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman today formally announces his presidential bid. And his candidacy raises this question: Just who is Huntsman? And we're not just talking about the folks who do NOT know him. Even among the folks who do, the same question is getting asked: Just who is he? Is he a real presidential contender, or is he more of an idea created in a focus group of swing voters? Right now, the evidence suggests more of the latter. Our recent national NBC/WSJ poll showed Huntsman dead last in a 10-candidate GOP trial heat. Where is he on the issues? Well, he backs the Ryan budget plan, but he also has called President Obama a “remarkable leader,” believes in climate change, and favors civil unions. (In fact, because of those civil-union views, a local Michigan GOP group disinvited him from headlining an event in early 2009.)

*** Who are his supporters? And he’s a man -- for now -- without a base or political home: He’s not the preferred candidates of Mormons and Utahans (that’s Romney); he’s launching his presidential bid from New Jersey; he’s basing his campaign headquarters in Florida; he owns a home in DC; and he just returned from Beijing. Indicative of this lack of a base or home is Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), who served previously served as Huntsman’s campaign manager and chief of staff, but who has said he’ll back Romney, though he hasn’t officially endorsed anyone yet. “Officially, I am keeping my powder dry at the moment,” Chaffetz said back in April. By the way, the Washington Post writes how both Huntsman and Romney are vying for Mormon fundraising cash.

*** What’s his message? So far, Huntsman has portrayed himself as the optimistic, non-confrontational Republican in the race. The question is if this is a message GOP primary voters want to hear this year. “I don't think you need to run down anyone's reputation to run for president,” Huntsman will say in his announcement speech, per excerpts. “Of course, we'll have our disagreements. I respect my fellow Republican candidates. And I respect the president. He and I have a difference of opinion on how to help the country we both love. But the question each of us wants the voters to answer is who will be the better president; not who's the better American.” More Huntsman: “We're not just choosing new leaders. We're choosing whether we are to become yesterday's story or tomorrow's. Everything is at stake. This is the hour when we choose our future.”

*** But why not? As it turns out, Huntsman’s biggest base seems to be the political media, which have showered attention on the Republican in his swings through New Hampshire and South Carolina.  And here’s the reason why: Beyond Romney (who’s the potentially vulnerable front-runner), Pawlenty (who hasn’t caught fire and has had a BAD past week), Bachmann (who just got into the race), and Rick Perry (who’s 50-50% on getting in), who else is there? As Huntsman told the New York Times’ Matt Bai, “If the marketplace works, if something is there, if it’s viable, if there’s a marketplace there for what we’ve done and our basic approach, then let’s see where it goes.”

*** Huntsman hits the road: Huntsman makes his bid official from Liberty State Park at 10:00 am ET and then holds a rally in Exeter, NH at 1:20 pm. On Wednesday, he heads to Columbia, SC, where he tours a small business and then makes a speech. On Thursday, it’s on to Florida. And on Friday, he hits Nevada and Utah. It's an old-school style presidential announcement, including a press charter to bring along folks who are covering him at Liberty Island to New Hampshire.

*** About Jon Huntsman, the bullet-point bio: He has seven children, including one adopted from China and one from India… He’s the oldest of nine children… He dropped out of high school to play in a rock band called Wizard… He attended the University of Utah before heading on his Mormon mission to China, where he learned to speak Mandarin; upon his return, he transferred to UPenn and graduated from there… His father is the wealthiest man in Utah with a net worth of $1.9 billion… The father’s company, Huntsman Corporation, is a multinational petrochemical company that invented the Big Mac clamshell and the plastic egg carton… Huntsman was an intern for Sen. Orrin Hatch (who’s backing Romney), a staff assistant in the Reagan White House, worked Bush 41’s Commerce Department, and was a deputy trade ambassador to Bush 43… In 2008, Huntsman backed McCain, though his father endorsed Romney. (More bio here)

*** Obama to deliver Afghanistan troop-withdrawal speech on Wednesday: As we hinted at yesterday, President Obama will deliver his speech on Afghanistan this week -- on Wednesday. The Wall Street Journal: “President Barack Obama will announce on Wednesday how fast he plans to pull 33,000 surge troops out of Afghanistan, rolling back a troop build-up that was intended to halt the Taliban's momentum, administration officials said... Military officials have proposed removing 3,000 to 5,000 of the surge troops in July and as many as 5,000 more after the current fighting season ends this fall. Mr. Obama is under pressure from key allies in Congress, including Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, to withdraw as many as 15,000 of the surge troops by year's end.” Aides with knowledge of the decision caution folks from over-reading some of the reports circulating this morning, saying they’re surprised at how inaccurate some of them are.

*** Debt-ceiling update: As for the debt-ceiling talks, it appears that the “grand bargain” -- marrying a ceiling increase with big deficit reduction and entitlement reform -- isn’t going to happen as expected. Instead, the objective seems to be raising the debt ceiling with agreed-to cuts attached. Politically, that the grand bargain probably won’t happen has to make both Democrats and Republicans smile. For Democrats, that means the Medicare card is on the table, and that the issue will be decided by the 2012 election. And Republicans are glad their incumbents don't have to eat their words about taxes.

*** Come on baby, light my fire: Over the weekend, GOP Sen. John McCain stirred up controversy by saying that there’s “substantial evidence” that illegal immigrants are partly responsible for the wildfires in Arizona. In an interview on “TODAY,” McCain didn’t back down from that statement, though he said he heard the charge first from the U.S. Forest Service. “People who come across our border illegally … that these fires sometimes have been caused by this,” he said, adding: “The Forest Service is on record for saying exactly what I repeated.”

*** Christie hits low in poll: A new Quinnipiac poll shows New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie with an upside-down approval rating, 44%-47%, which is his lowest-ever score in the poll. Per Quinnipiac, “Women disapprove of the job Gov. Christie is doing 54 - 36 percent, while men approve 53 - 39 percent, a 17-point gender gap… Approval is 76 - 15 percent among Republicans and 47 - 44 percent among independent voters, while Democrats disapprove 75 - 17 percent.”

*** On the 2012 trail: Gingrich attends a screening of “A City Upon a Hill” in Savannah, GA… Pawlenty’s wife keynotes a luncheon in New Hampshire… And Santorum’s in Iowa.

Countdown to Iowa GOP straw poll: 53 days
Countdown to NV-2 special election: 84 days
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 140 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 230 days
* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up

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