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As support dwindles, Huntsman shifts tone

A diplomat to the core, Jon Huntsman is well known here as a likable guy who prefers compromise to combativeness. Niceness is such a strong part of his persona that the Republican pledged to run a civil campaign for president.

But now, as Huntsman struggles against better-known opponents, he is both subtly and directly criticizing GOP front-runner Mitt Romney as well as the Democrat who named him U.S. ambassador to China just a few years ago, President Obama.

The shift in tone comes as polls show Huntsman in single digits nationally.

While in South Carolina recently, Huntsman jabbed at Romney's record, saying Utah led the way on job creation and urged his audience to compare it to Massachusetts' standing: "Not first, but 47th." And last week in New Hampshire, he called Obama "a good man" and "earnest." But, he added, "He's fundamentally failed us."

It's an uncomfortable political role for Huntsman, who has prided himself on his diplomatic skills and is rarely disliked by anyone, even those who disagree with him politically.

Republicans and Democrats alike in Utah roundly describe Huntsman as a leader who never resorted to personal attacks to gain the upper hand.

"He wasn't an ideologue, and he empathized with a lot of different points of views," said Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker.

As governor, Huntsman was almost as popular with Democrats as he was with those in his own party, which made him practically invincible when he ran for re-election in 2008 in a strongly conservative state.

Thus, as he increases his criticism of his White House rivals, Huntsman risks undermining his authenticity and turning off GOP primary voters. That may explain why he's trying to contrast himself with his rivals without appearing negative. It's as if he'd rather let voters read between the lines of his criticism than castigate his opponents by name.

Huntsman explained his approach this way in an interview with CBS: "Civility can coexist with the facts."

"In a race, you've got to point out your differences, you've got to put your record on the table," he said. "It's the personal attacks that I think Americans hate so much about politics these days. Stick to the issues. You can talk about the issues and draw your differences."

But can Huntsman do that without breaking his promise? Has he already broken it?

"The attacks so far were civil. They bordered on classic political attacks, but didn't get there," said Alex Slater, a Washington-based Democratic consultant. "But I can't believe they won't continue to sharpen. I don't think they can maintain the civility pledge."