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Jon Huntsman sets his sights on crucial state of Florida

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MIAMI — Former Utah governor Jon M. Huntsman Jr. visited with Florida voters for the first time as a presidential candidate Thursday in his opening bid to become the crucial Sunshine State’s favorite son.

It’s a high hurdle for the former China envoy who is relatively unknown here. As he stepped off of his campaign bus, one woman said in a Southern drawl, “These must be the boys from Utah.”

But Huntsman is betting that with a wife from Orlando, and a campaign headquarters there, too, his focus on Florida will pay off in the GOP primary season.

Yet Huntsman, who declared his candidacy for the Republican nomination Tuesday, pushed back against the idea that his Florida-centric strategy is akin to the one employed by unsuccessful 2008 presidential candidate and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani’s win-there-or-go-home approach in 2008.

(Huntsman will however, skip conservative Iowa and ignore state straw polls, his aides said.)

“We have an early state strategy. I would liken it to running for governor in three states simultaneously,” Huntsman said. “New Hampshire is going to be critical. South Carolina is going to be critical. And obviously Florida, I think it’s where the Republican nomination is going to be decided. This will be a key state for us. We are going to work it very, very aggressively.”

Huntsman has surrounded himself with a staff that knows the donor-rich state well, including Susan Wiles, a campaign aide to Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R).

But of all of the aides and possible supporters who are familiar with Florida politics, perhaps no ally is more important than former governor Jeb Bush Jr., who toured the state with Huntsman and brings with him a prominent family name and ties to the Latino community.

Just as Huntsman began his tour of a lumber yard here, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) released projections for a record Latino turnout nationwide in 2012, up 28 percent over 2008. In Florida, projections show turnout could increase 35 percent over 2008, with 1.65 million Latinos casting ballots — slightly more than 18 percent of the total vote.

Bush, who backed Giuliani in 2008, said the Latino vote, which went heavily for Obama in 2008, is still up for grabs with the right message. Bush said he hasn’t yet decided who to support in 2012.

“We need to really focus the message on immigration and the economy; those are important issues for Latinos. ... That is something that Hispanics and Latinos would buy into,” said Bush, who is on the board of SunPac, an Hispanic outreach group. “I’m learning more about the governor-slash-ambassador — not sure exactly what we should call him— but I’m impressed because he is very substantive, he talks about the issues, he knows them well. And that’s what we need in a general election.”

Thursday morning, Huntsman toured Everglades Lumber, a business that has been devastated by the housing downturn, shrinking from more than 300 employees to 84 over the past several years.

“We don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel,” said owner Ovi Vento, as he walked through the store with Huntsman. “We’ve been really hit hard. We’ve seen what the government has done with the big companies, but we are the ones that really create employment.”

Huntsman touted his record of job creation and economic expansion in Utah, and said that tax, regulatory, health-care and energy reform are key to jumpstarting the economy. But an economic strategy should be state-based, he said.

“Every state has to look at it individually, because every state is unique in America,” Huntsman said. “We still live in a federalist system. ... The federal overlay is such that the federal government could do a better job in reforming the corporate tax code.”

Huntsman, at a roundtable with local business leaders, fielded several questions on immigration and said that he backs aspects of the DREAM Act, which would create a path to citizenship for children brought to the United States illegally. But he said border security is an important first step.

“I know that the rhetoric and the discussion gets very, very hot, but to begin this conversation, we need to prove the point that we can secure the border,” Huntsman said. “Everybody wants to do what’s right with the 11 or 12 million people who are here. ... But until we do that, we aren’t going to have the basis for a rational conversation on immigration reform.”

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