Why Asa Hutchinson looked forward (and didn’t mention Trump) in campaign kickoff

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(BENTONVILLE, Ark.) — Former Arkansas GOP Gov. Asa Hutchinson, on Wednesday formally announced he’s running for the White House — going back to his hometown of Bentonville to kick off his campaign.

“I have been a consistent conservative through my time as leader of the party — in the United States Congress and as governor. And now, I bring that same vigor to another fight and that battle is for the future of our country and the soul of our party,” he told supporters. “Today, I am announcing that I am a candidate for president of the United States.”

“In this campaign for president, I stand alone in terms of my experience, my record, and leadership,” he said, echoing remarks from earlier this month when he first revealed he was running on ABC’s “This Week.”

The day before Wednesday’s event, Hutchinson, who says the Republican Party should not be looking in the rearview mirror, took a a look back himself as he prepared for the formal announcement.

“It’s really exciting to have it in Bentonville,” Hutchinson said in an interview with ABC News on Tuesday. “First of all, it reflects me.”

It was 37 years ago, outside the same county courthouse where Hutchinson had tried his earliest cases as an attorney, that he announced his first campaign for statewide office. It’s where, in the 1970s, he put in the town’s first FM radio station, and where the now 72-year-old raised his four children.

To mark the campaign kickoff, Hutchinson was planning to sprinkle bits of his heritage in the program.

A marching band from Springdale High School, Hutchinson’s alma mater, was to supply music, while cheerleaders from Gravette, a small town where he went to grade school, were going to provide extra pep. His wife of 50 years, Susan, was going to introduce him.

“It reflects the rural roots that are a part of me,” Hutchinson said. “The other part of the story, about Bentonville, is that it tells the story of America, from entrepreneurs that didn’t rely upon the government.”

Naming Sam Walton, Don Tyson and J.B. Hunt, Hutchinson recalled an era that was “just simply America, and now you see the growth, but you still have the same small-town values that made it special.”

Don’t expect to hear ‘Trump’

While Hutchinson has cast himself as a Republican foil to former President Donald Trump, even calling for Trump to drop out of the race following his indictment, ABC News was told not to expect to hear the name “Trump” in his speech.

A source familiar said to expect, instead, a focus on looking forward — as opposed to leaders on both sides looking in the rearview mirror.

“It was a very backward look that Joe Biden gave in his announcement,” Hutchinson said Tuesday, reacting to President Joe Biden’s video announcing his reelection campaign. “It was more about the past and 2020, and I was disappointed there wasn’t more of a forward-looking.”

“We don’t need a replay of 2020. We don’t need a Biden-Trump contest again. It didn’t look pretty in 2020. It will look even worse in 2024. We’ve seen that movie. We don’t need to see it again,” he added. “That’s why President Biden is really focusing on Trump because he would love to have a replay of that.”

For Hutchinson, looking ahead includes a trip to Washington this weekend for the White House Correspondents Dinner before returning to Iowa for several small-scale campaign events.

The race for enthusiasm

Hutchinson made his 2024 bid official earlier this month in an exclusive sit-down interview with ABC “This Week” co-anchor Jonathan Karl — but Wednesday marks his formal launch with supporters in his home state.

The term-limited governor was succeeded after eight years by former Trump White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Hutchinson’s campaign pointed out that all three of his Republican predecessors had Democrats succeed them in office, until him.

That executive experience bookended decades of public service including three consecutive terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, serving in the George W. Bush administration as Administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration and later as the nation’s first Undersecretary of Homeland Security for Border Protection.

But his career in public service began in Bentonville, as a city attorney, before President Ronald Reagan appointed him as U.S. attorney for the Western District of Arkansas in 1982. He was the youngest U.S. attorney in the nation at the time and notably, prosecuted a white supremacist militia group, the Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord.

In his interview with Karl, Hutchinson acknowledged it would take “a lot of hard work and good messaging” to raise his national profile and break through a crowded field.

He’s currently polling in the single digits, well behind some of his other official competitors in the race — Trump, former South Carolina Governor and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy — and some thought to be running like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

But Hutchinson isn’t fazed by what may be a brutal primary season. He feels called to serve.

“I think the Republican base will see that our best chance of moving forward with conservative principles is through new ideas and new leadership,” he said. “That’s what’s beautiful about our democracy is that you can go retail politics, you can do policy, and that’s what wins votes.”

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