BENTONVILLE, Ark. (AP) — Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson formally launched his Republican presidential campaign Wednesday, pledging to “bring out the best of America” and aiming to draw contrasts with other GOP hopefuls on top issues, including how best to reform federal law enforcement agencies.
Hutchinson kicked off his 2024 bid in his hometown of Bentonville, on the same steps where he launched an unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign 30 years ago.
“I ran as a conservative Republican when being a Republican was like having a career-ending handicap,” Hutchinson said, adding, “And now, I bring that same vigor to fight another battle, and that battle is for the future of our country and the soul of our party.”
The stalwart conservative, who announced in a television interview earlier this month that he intended to run, has been a rare figure among announced or expected GOP presidential hopefuls in his willingness to criticize former President Donald Trump, calling for him to drop out of the 2024 race instead of seeking another White House term.
And while Trump has fixated his campaign message around his false claims about the 2020 election he lost, Hutchinson has said voters need a candidate who is not focused on the past.
While some of the other contenders who served in Trump’s administration struggled to carve out distance from Trump, Hutchinson has been able to draw from his lengthy resume in government and roots in America’s heartland. Without mentioning Trump by name Wednesday, Hutchinson offered a contrast to the former president’s derision of federal law enforcement by emphasizing his own background, with previous service as head of the Drug Enforcement Administration and former undersecretary of the Department of Homeland Security.
“There are a few misguided leaders who say we should defund law enforcement, we should defund the FBI. I am here today in support of our law enforcement heroes,” Hutchinson said.
He went on to say, “We should not defund the FBI, but we do need serious reform to refocus the core functions of our federal law enforcement.” He said the FBI needs to be “trimmed down and focused on its No. 1 duty: leading our counterterrorism mission.”
Hutchinson, also a former U.S. attorney and congressman, launched his bid a day after President Joe Biden formally announced his reelection campaign. Hutchinson has argued that neither Biden nor Trump is focused on the future.
“I am confident we will even survive through the destructive policies of the Biden administration, but the time for change is now,” said Hutchinson. “It is time to bring out the best of America.”
On Wednesday, Hutchinson also offered a contrast to the isolationist approach some other Republicans have taken about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, saying he agreed “with those who say we do not want an unending war in Ukraine, and the best way to avoid a long war is to help Ukraine win today.”
Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, entrepreneur and “Woke, Inc.” author Vivek Ramaswamy and radio host Larry Elder are also in the Republican race. They, along with expected and potential candidates like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, have largely avoided criticizing Trump and have at times defended him.
Hutchinson’s announcement took place in the tree-lined town square of Bentonville, the birthplace of Walmart. The city of nearly 57,000 people in the northwest part of the state is where Hutchinson first served as a city attorney starting in 1977 and where he first ran for office with an unsuccessful bid for local prosecutor.
Hutchinson’s second gubernatorial term ended in January, but he’s been a defining figure of Arkansas politics for more than four decades. His successor is Trump’s former press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Elected to the U.S. House in 1996, Hutchinson won a seat his older brother, Tim, had held for two terms. Serving as one of the House managers prosecuting the impeachment case against President Bill Clinton starting in 1998, Asa Hutchinson stayed in the House until 2001, when he resigned to serve in the Bush administration.
After the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the National Rifle Association selected Hutchinson to lead a task force to study school safety and recommended putting armed guards at every school in the country.
Elected governor in 2014, Hutchinson signed a series of income tax cuts and restrictions on abortion, including an outright ban on the procedure that became effective when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022. Hutchinson later said he wished that the measure had included exceptions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest, but didn’t push for lawmakers to add those exemptions after the court ruling.
On Wednesday, Hutchinson steered clear of culture war issues otherwise dominant in some sectors of GOP politics, focusing on his overall commitment to safeguarding America as “democracy’s lighthouse.”
Hutchinson supported many of Trump’s policies but began to break with him over his lies about the 2020 presidential election. He has also criticized Trump for the 2020 peace deal he negotiated with the Taliban and for high government spending in his administration, calling Trump “one of the reasons that we added to our national debt and our deficit.”
Randy Zook, the head of the Arkansas Chamber of Commerce, attended Wednesday’s launch and said Hutchinson found a way to “thread the needle” as governor even as the state moved further to the right. Zook cited as an example Hutchinson’s decision to support keeping the state’s Medicaid expansion, but with changes such as a work requirement that was blocked by a federal judge.
“I think there’s a lane for him,” Zook said. “The country is looking for a reasonable and sensible and positive conservative. Asa fits that bill.”
Hutchinson has also shown a willingness to criticize some of his other rivals, telling The Associated Press he disagrees with the way DeSantis has sparred with Disney after the company opposed legislation DeSantis signed in Florida barring school instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity.
“It seems very Trumpian to me as to how he’s approached it,” Hutchinson said. “I don’t think government ought to be punishing the private sector because we don’t like what they say.”
Kathy Travis, a retired schoolteacher from Bentonville who attended Hutchinson’s launch, said she voted for Biden in 2020 but was leaning toward supporting the former governor. Travis, who wore a shirt that said “#AnyoneButTrump,” said she was pleased with Hutchinson’s handling as governor of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“He’s just a regular guy who’s made his way in politics and maintained his values,” Travis said.
Price reported from New York. Meg Kinnard contributed to this report from Columbia, S.C.
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