Jon Huntsman tells tea partiers: I’m a conservative

Alex Pappas Political Reporter
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CHARLESTON, S.C. — Jon Huntsman knew his audience right away.

The first person to stand up and ask the Republican presidential candidate a question Sunday afternoon at a town hall meeting organized by freshman South Carolina Rep. Tim Scott did a quick survey of the hundreds in the crowd.

“I just wanted to ask,” said Debbie Jones, a 58-year-old retiree. “How many people here are tea party people?”

A majority of hands in the audience went up.

“And how many want somebody to run for president who is a moderate?”

Only three hands went up.

Huntsman immediately took issue with the suggestion that he is not a conservative.

“You know, everybody likes to put a label on somebody,” Huntsman, the former governor of Utah and ambassador to China, responded to the woman. “I think that’s unfair. All I ask is that you look at my record.”

“The Wall Street Journal called me a conservative problem solver,” he said. “That’s what I am.”

Those who braved the heat to show up to the presidential forum in the Palmetto State — home of the first Southern presidential primary — admitted they came skeptical of Huntsman’s conservative credentials.

“I think candidates need to have constructive criticism, and that’s what people are saying about him,” Jones, the woman who did the impromptu audience survey, told The Daily Caller. “That he’s a moderate.”

Despite the fact he governed in conservative Utah, how did he get that reputation?

His speeches aren’t exactly fiery like those of fellow candidates Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain or potential rival Sarah Palin. He once worked for President Obama, as ambassador. And last week, he was the only major presidential candidate to support the debt-ceiling compromise struck by Republicans on Capitol Hill and the White House.

Huntsman, who was tie-less on Sunday and shed his blazer once on-stage, spent the next hour at Scott’s forum trying to convince those like Jones that he is no moderate or liberal Republican.

He got loud applause by praising the district’s freshman conservative congressman by saying, “thank god for Tim Scott.” They applauded again when he said President Obama has “failed us” and when he said the country needs a balanced budget amendment, a favorite of tea partiers.

And when it comes to paying down the country’s debt, he said “everything needs to be on the table,” including entitlements and defense.

“We can’t have any sacred cows in this debate,” Huntsman said.

To the pro-lifers in the crowd, Huntsman brought his adoptive daughter on stage and said he’s thankful every day her mother “chose life.”

Scott, who plans to hold similar forums with the other candidates, told TheDC after the event that he’s open to supporting Huntsman. Scott said he’ll ultimately endorse whomever he thinks has the best chance of beating Obama.

“It seemed the audience enjoyed and appreciated his comments,” Scott said of Huntsman. “They saw sincerity in what he said.”

Huntsman told TheDC he thinks he can ultimately appeal to the tea party crowd.

“I think when we’re called a conservative problem solver, there’s a lot to like about what we’ve done,” he said in a brief interview afterwards, referencing again the Wall Street Journal. “I think we can bring a very diverse group together. That’s how we’re going to win the election.”

WATCH: Huntsman jams Sunday to “Hit the Road Jack” on the keyboard after the event, a song Scott dedicated to Obama. Captured by TheDC.