Dana Milbank
Opinion writer June 21, 2011

Who is Jon Huntsman and where is he going? Even his campaign aides don’t seem to know.

At the former Utah governor’s presidential kickoff speech on Tuesday, campaign workers distributed — and then confiscated — press credentials misspelling the candidate’s first name as “John” instead of “Jon.”

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

Those same credentials misstated the location of the event as New York rather than New Jersey — a symptom of a geographic confusion that became more pronounced later when reporters and campaign staff were directed toward a charter plane bound for Saudi Arabia rather than the intended destination of New Hampshire.

People watching the Huntsman announcement on TV were unlikely to emerge with any clearer picture of the candidate. Huntsman began talking at 10:06 a.m. Fox News cut in after just four minutes, as the candidate was praising the “selfless armed forces.” MSNBC broke in seconds later, as Huntsman spoke about the “character that made the desert bloom.” CNN made it all the way to 10:12 a.m., ending its live coverage when the candidate referred to “the end of the American century.”

All three cable networks had moved on before Huntsman got to the core of his message. “We will conduct this campaign on the high road,” vowed the candidate. “I respect the president of the United States. He and I have a difference of opinion on how to help a 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.”

That is the essence of Huntsman’s appeal, and, by the caustic political standards of 2011, it is a radical proposition. Huntsman, who was until recently President Obama’s ambassador to China and yet who notably didn’t mention Obama by name in his kickoff speech, made a plea for “civility, humanity and respect” — the very qualities our political system seems to abhor.

I wish Huntsman luck in this noble pursuit, but the high road almost always leads to political oblivion. For Huntsman to maintain his course all the way to the Republican presidential nomination would turn politics on its head. More likely, he will join other decent men — Richard Lugar, Orrin Hatch — whose presidential campaigns were quickly forgotten.

Early signs suggest Huntsman will do no better. Polls show upward of six in 10 Republicans don’t know enough about him to form an opinion. In Iowa, where Huntsman has said he will not compete, one poll found total support for Huntsman of one — not 1 percent, but one person.

Huntsman’s would-be opponents are happy to fill in the blanks: Democrats point to his reversal on cap-and-trade for carbon emissions, conservatives complain about his support for civil unions, and the White House is trying to paint him as a behind-the-scenes moderate. To fight those impressions, the campaign will have to do more than put out videos of a Huntsman body double riding a motocross bike in the Utah desert, while soulful music plays and a disembodied voice attests that Huntsman played in a high school band and prefers “a greasy spoon to a linen tablecloth.”

The soulful music resumed Tuesday morning at Liberty State Park, where Huntsman gave his announcement speech from the same location Ronald Reagan used in 1980. He and his improbably handsome family strolled across a lawn, processional style, while a sparse crowd of about 100 applauded.

Huntsman, once an advance man for Reagan, still has not perfected the craft. The fierce wind forced him to hold down his papers with his left hand. He had to raise his voice to compete with airplane noise, helicopters and a boat horn.

The TV cameras were, for the most part, at the wrong angle to capture the candidate with the Statue of Liberty in the background.

The next stop brought more of the same. After the Saudi plane confusion in Newark (the campaign, CNN reported, blamed the Port Authority), the candidate arrived about an hour late for his speech in Exeter, N.H.

He had swapped his jacket and tie for a chessboard-pattern shirt, but his message was the same as earlier: “Our political debates today are corrosive and not reflective of the belief that Abe Lincoln espoused back in his day: that we are a great country because we are a good country.”

“I respect the president,” Huntsman repeated in New Hampshire. His supporters applauded.

It is an honorable theme. But Huntsman, whether he goes by John or Jon, will almost certainly find that this message spells defeat.

danamilbank@washpost.com