(CNN) -- He's a motorcycle-riding Mormon who speaks fluent Mandarin, a soft-spoken father of seven with eclectic political connections.
Jon Huntsman is a former two-term Republican Utah governor and former ambassador to China for President Barack Obama, whom he once described as a remarkable leader.
Therein lies a primary problem.
"I think the problem isn't so much that he served as ambassador but that he just gushed over policies that made no sense," said former New Hampshire Gov. John H. Sununu, who has been supportive of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's campaign.
As Huntsman officially launches his campaign, his former colleagues on Team Obama want to hug him to death.
"When we were in Shanghai, we got a chance to talk and he was very effusive -- this was in the fall of 2009 (during Obama's visit to China) -- about what the president was doing," said David Axelrod, Obama's top political consultant. "He was encouraging on health care; he was encouraging on the whole range of issues."
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In an interview last week, Huntsman said Obama has "failed on the economic front."
Axelrod said that conflicts with what he heard from Huntsman in 2009.
"And if he had suggestions on the economy, he had an excellent opportunity to suggest them, where we were all together in China," Axelrod said. "I think that what has changed is not his view of the economy but his view of his own chances to, perhaps, win the nomination. And I understand -- that's politics. He's a politician and he sees an opportunity."
Huntsman addressed his Obama connection in his announcement Tuesday, saying of 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."
Democrats in Utah say Huntsman has been changing his positions in the days leading up to his announcement.
"Huntsman's changed positions so quickly over the past few days it's enough to give Utah voters whiplash," state party chairman Wayne Holland said.
But a Huntsman spokesman called Holland's comments "distortions."
"Governor Huntsman led Utah as an economic conservative, cutting taxes, balancing budgets, and passing free market health care reforms without a mandate. That is the record he will run on," spokesman Tim Miller said.
More than 70% of the country doesn't know enough about Huntsman to know whether they like him. In a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll last week, he registered support from 1% of Republicans or GOP-leaning independents.
But he did score a second-place finish in a straw poll at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans last weekend. While Huntsman was a last-minute cancellation because of a cold, his wife Mary Kaye and several of his advisers did make the rounds.
Huntsman made his announcement at Liberty State Park in New Jersey on Tuesday in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, where Ronald Reagan launched his presidential campaign in 1980.
A former staff assistant in the Reagan White House, Huntsman said of his former boss, "He assured us we could make America great again, and under his leadership we did."
Huntsman planned to immediately head to New Hampshire, where the first primary of the 2012 campaign will be held. He will follow that with stops in the early primary states of South Carolina, Florida and Nevada, before making a stop in his home state.
Absent from that itinerary is Iowa, whose caucus follows New Hampshire's primary. Huntsman doesn't plan to compete there because he has opposed subsidies for corn-based ethanol, an unpopular position in that corn-producing state.
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Huntsman, 51, is the son of an industrialist who invented the clam-shell Styrofoam box for the McDonald's Big Mac. Two of his children are adopted, one from China and one from India.
He served a two-year Mormon mission to Taiwan, where he acquired the language skills that would serve him in his future diplomatic career and in business as the family business expanded into Chinese markets.
His résumé contains a number of government and political jobs. In addition to the Reagan White House job, Huntsman interned for Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah.
After a six-year stint in the family business, Huntsman served as a deputy assistant secretary for trade and development. He was ambassador to Singapore under the presidency of George H.W. Bush.
He served as a deputy U.S. trade representative for President George W. Bush, before being elected governor in 2004. Huntsman was a national co-chairman for Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential bid against Obama.
After being elected to a second term as Utah's governor, Huntsman resigned to become Obama's ambassador to China in 2009. He resigned from that post this year.
Huntsman entertained, but ultimately did not enact, the idea of mandated health care insurance in Utah; thinks the United States ought to get out of Afghanistan; believes in the science of climate change; and favors civil unions for same-sex couples.
"Will some people hold that against me? It's OK -- you've got to be who you are and march forward," he said. "Some people will like it. And I believe that in the end people will look at the totality of what it is you stand for, the totality of what you've done, and then make an informed decision."
Party leaders have advised the rank and file to promote a candidate who can win the 2012 election rather than focus on ideology. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a respected party elder and political tactician, told the New Orleans conference that "purity is a loser" in politics.
He urged Republican voters to concentrate on a pocketbook-oriented economic message and to pick a candidate who offers "plain-spoken, common-sense solutions" instead of an ideology-driven agenda.
"We are not going to have a perfect candidate," Barbour said. "There has only been one perfect person that has ever walked on this Earth, and there's not going to be one who runs for president in 2012."
CNN's Peter Hamby and Paul Steinhauser contributed to this report.