Jon Huntsman’s first 2012 test: Distinguishing himself from Mitt Romney

Holly Bailey

Jon Huntsman kicks off his first major political outing of his potential 2012 run today, traveling to New Hampshire for a five-day tour intended to introduce him to GOP voters in the pivotal primary state.

But as Huntsman takes his first public baby steps as a likely presidential contender, the former Utah governor faces a crucial test: How does he distinguish himself from other 2012 GOP hopefuls, particularly Mitt Romney?

As The Ticket has previously noted, there's more than a passing resemblance between Huntsman and Romney. They are both ex-governors, they are both Mormon, and both have a centrist streak when it comes to social issues and would much prefer to talk about the economy, instead. They are even distant cousins.

So how will Huntsman run against his long-time frenemy?

The former Utah governor has so far provided scant details on what exactly his 2012 campaign mandate will be. As The Ticket noted last week, Huntsman, who left his post as President Obama's ambassador to China last month, has declined to say how he disagrees with his former boss on policy. He has also declined to offer critiques of his potential 2012 rivals, including Romney.

Huntsman's campaign says the candidate will provide details about his candidacy soon enough—and indeed, there are vague reports from Republicans who have heard his tentative talking points that he'll center his campaign on the economy and the country's role in the world, as it relates to "competitiveness."

"The 21st century is going to be about economic competition, make no mistake about it," Huntsman told reporters in South Carolina earlier this month. "The view from 10,000 miles away would suggest that unless your economic house is in order, you're largely going to be irrelevant."

The problem for Huntsman: That doesn't sound much different from the messages that Romney and Tim Pawlenty have been pushing in their exploratory bids for the White House.

In the absence of specifics, the rush has been on to define Huntsman. His rivals are already moving to tie him to Obama. They have played up the ex-governor's praise of his former boss—even though some Republicans think Huntsman's time in the Obama administration isn't a disqualifier in the GOP race. There's also been a focus on Huntsman's centrist stances on issues such as climate change and gay rights, which might not play well with conservative GOP primary voters.

And then there's this description in the Washington Post today: "Aides say he is a cool version of Romney," reporter Nia Malika Henderson writes, noting Huntsman's "colorful personal narrative," including his stint in an REO Speedwagon cover band.

A Huntsman aide tells The Ticket that description of his boss came via a supporter, not from the campaign itself. But it hints at how tricky it might be for Huntsman to truly distinguish himself from Romney, as both try to stake out similar policy positions ahead of the GOP primary.

In the end, it may ultimately come down to a choice of which candidate appeals to voters more in terms of personality—which is perhaps the fight that Huntsman really wants.

(Photo of Romney and Huntsman: Douglas C. Pizac/AP)