SALT LAKE CITY -- 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.
"He genuinely wants to please people, and he gets along with everyone," says Olene Walker, a Republican who preceded Huntsman as Utah governor.
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 Barack Obama.
The shift in tone comes as polls show Huntsman in single digits nationally and in key states, and it follows his decision to change campaign managers. Advisers over the past few weeks have been telling Huntsman that he must engage Romney and Obama to boost his prospects of winning the GOP nomination.
While in South Carolina recently, Huntsman jabbed at Romney's record, saying Utah had led the way in 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 role for Huntsman, who has prided himself on his diplomatic skills and is rarely disliked even by those who disagree with him politically. In part, that's because he has never faced a strong challenge for office, but it also speaks to his personality.
"He wasn't an ideologue, and he empathized with a lot of different points of views," said Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, who was the Utah House Democratic minority leader during most of Huntsman's time as governor.
His Democratic opponent, Bob Springmeyer, said Huntsman never did anything publicly or privately that suggested he was anything but genuine. "The nice-guy image, the diplomatic personality is legitimate," he said.
Thus, as he increases his criticism of his White House rivals, Huntsman risks undermining his authenticity and turning off GOP primary voters.