Cue the Music: Huntsman Has Arrived

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Beginning with his presidential campaign announcement speech at Liberty State Park, the former governor's team will try to sell GOP primary voters on an unconventional image

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JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- Let's "play a little game," says former Texas Republican congressman Tom Loeffler. We're gathered in Liberty State Park, a setting made politically famous by Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign kick-off against President Carter. We're here to watch the presidential launch of Jon Huntsman - former Obama ambassador to China, Utah governor, businessman, Mormon missionary, and, after today, a seeming middle-ground choice in the 2012 Republican primary.

What we're playing along with at Loeffler's direction is turning our backs on the Statue of Liberty, towards lawn of the park's Flag Plaza, to witness the Huntsman family making its way over. The crowd is small and placid. It probably represents Huntsman's base at this point: journalists and smattering of supporters. If Flag Plaza is a baseball diamond, the few hundred of us are collected on third base. And we're waiting for the Huntsmans -- Jon, wife Mary Kaye, their passel of children -- to get there. The trip takes about a minute, with the brood stopping to consider a World War II statue of American soldier.

Finally, the Huntsmans arrive. Dreamy country music swells, and the soon-to-be candidate takes the stage. From this podium, Reagan pummeled Carter, calling his record "a litany of despair, of broken promises, of sacred trusts abandoned and forgotten." Huntsman isn't getting into that sort of thing. "I don't think you need to run down someone's reputation in order to run for the office of the president," he says. There's some hints at policy, talk of tax cuts, job creation. But that's not the point. The point is for the world to start to get a good look at Jon Huntsman.

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Standing at the back of the plaza as we do is a beaming Fred Davis. If Huntsman's entrance music sounded familiar, it's the Republican media strategist's doing. The custom-made tune is the soundtrack to a trio of curious video clips Davis rolled out over the Internet in the last week to tease this moment. They followed a pattern. "6 Days" showed an actor riding a dirt bike through what's presumably the Utah desert. "Did not become famous with his band 'Wizard,'" reads the on-screen copy, a reference to the high school band that Huntsman dropped out of high school to pursue. "4 Days" has the same scene, with the tagline , "Has seven children, one from India, one from China." And then "Tomorrow," rolled out yesterday: "The candidate who rides motocross to relax." The videos, posted on Vimeo, attracted just 85,000 views in total, and one comment. It's from one "troyeseffigy." It reads simply, "wtf?"

I try to figure out a polite way to put troyeseffigy's question to Davis. Those videos were, um, quirky, I finally manage.

"My call," says Davis, who is known for having produced Carly Fiorina's nearly hallucinatory "Demon Sheep" web video during the 2010 California Senate campaign. There's no avoiding that Huntsman reads mild-mannered, and focusing the videos on his love of motocross, says Davis, made sense because "it was probably the most telling thing about him. That this guy, who was very, very calm, to pick this hobby that's not very calm is very, very interesting," says Davis. "If you went and talked to him, you wouldn't say, 'This is a guy who's a motocross fan.'"

An added benefit is that the Davis spots evoke an idea of Huntsman without serving up much of a target. The Utah Democrats tried, posting a weak parody that reads, "Has reversed positions he took as Governor. Riding away from his record." Huntsman will likely survive the blow.

On the way into the park this morning, I had run into John Weaver, the former John McCain aide who largely engineered Huntsman's candidacy while the latter was still serving in China. "Whether the press liked it, hated it, or were confused by it," Weaver said of the motocross video series, "they all spent the last week talking about it. Getting the news outlets to talk about it ad infinitum was one of our goals."

"There's lots of levels to Jon Huntsman," says Davis now. "This was just the first surprise."

"We're trying to surpass the gold standard set by the Obama campaign" -John Weaver

Next up is Jon2012.com, the online headquarters launched this morning, though it's been down at points during the day. The site is built out with a blog and Facebook and Twitter integration, but video stays a focus. ("HTV," in Huntsman campaign parlance.) There are dozens of videos of Huntsman and his wife discussing various issues, from why he chose to work for Obama to his favorite foods. "Street food," reveals Huntsman. "I think I developed that living in the third world, in developing countries."

That's emerging as a theme in the selling of Jon Huntsman, online and off. This is a man who knows the world. Mandarin, even -- a potential asset when Republican primary voters are a bit nervous about the economic might of China. "That perspective from afar has helped me see a path back to greatness," reads an email sent by the campaign early this morning. Jon2012.com highlights a biographical timeline illustrated with a globe showing where Huntsman has lived and worked, ending with his time as Obama's man in Beijing, which wrapped in just late April.

Both Weaver and Davis readily admit that Huntsman's former boss is a model for how they want to do online. "We're trying to surpass the gold standard set by the [2008] Obama campaign," as well as whatever they might be cooking up for this cycle, says Weaver. "The goal is to cut through the clutter of politics and commercial enterprises." Weaver rolls his eyes when I mention that a surrogate from the Michele Bachmann campaign told me that they see online as a chance to broadcast, and perhaps interact, but not to organize.

"We wanted to have an enormous presence from day one," says Davis. "Bigger than anything out there, even the president. If there are mobile apps, there's going to be a Jon Huntsman mobile app." For now, though, Jon2012.com lacks the self-organizing tools that have become a hallmark of Obama's online efforts.

Instead, the focus seems to be on telling a story and then slotting Huntsman into a role in it. "We're not just choosing new leaders," says Huntsman, wrapping up his short speech. "We're choosing whether we are to be yesterday's story or tomorrow's." Then the big finish. "I'm Jon Huntsman, and I'm running for president of the United States."

With the deed done, the music swells again, and Huntsman leaves the stage, bound for the airport, and then New Hampshire. The whole thing is over less than half an hour after it started. But Jon Huntsman and crew are hoping that it's just the beginning.

Image credit: Nancy Scola

Drop-down image credit: Nancy Scola

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Nancy Scola is a writer based in New York. She has written for New York, Salon, and Seed, and is a frequent contributor to The American Prospect.

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