"I'm a candidate for the office of president of the United States of America," he said to a subdued crowd of around a hundred.
"My kids can't believe I just said that," Huntsman joked.
Huntsman stood on stage behind a simple podium adorned with a "Huntsman 2012" sign. Surrounded by his wife and six of his seven children, Huntsman spoke for about 10 minutes.
Having served most recently as U.S. ambassador to China at the appointment of President Obama, Huntsman declared that while he respects his former boss, his new mission is to challenge and defeat him for the nation's highest office.
"He and I have a difference of opinion on how to help the country we both love," Huntsman said of the president. "But the question each of us wants the voters to answer is who will be the better president, not who's the better American."
The 51-year-old father of seven, including two adopted children, chose the same venue, Liberty State Park, that another GOP hopeful used to kick off his general election campaign 31 years ago.
"Behind me is our most famous symbol of the promise of America," Huntsman said. "President Reagan launched the 1980 general election here in an earlier time of trouble and worry. He assured us we could 'make America great again,' and under his leadership we did."
Huntsman, who's been registering near zero on the scale of Republican name-recognition, joins a crowded field of GOP presidential hopefuls, which includes another former governor who shares the Mormon faith.
During his speech, Huntsman hit the president, although not by name, on his leadership, handling of the economy and "big government approach" to solving problems.
"What we need now is leadership that trusts in our strength. Leadership that doesn't promise Washington has all the solutions to our problems, but rather looks to local solutions in our cities, towns and states," Huntsman said.
Huntsman kept the focus on jobs and the economy as he touted his experience as governor of the state of Utah.
"We cut taxes and flattened rates. We balanced our budget. Worked to maintain our AAA bond rating. When the economic crisis hit, we were ready," he said. "And by many accounts we became the best state for business and the best managed state in America."
Huntsman also used his speech to sound a warning to Americans that if drastic measures were not taken in regards to the nation's mounting debt, "the 21st century then will be known as the end of the American century."
"For the first time in our history, we are about to pass down to the next generation a country that is less powerful, less compassionate, less competitive and less confident than the one we got," Huntsman said. "This is totally unacceptable and totally un-American."
While the themes in Huntsman's speech were in keeping with traditional Republican messaging this cycle, the motorcycle-riding Mormon's resume is anything but.
The son of a billionaire businessman and a member of one of the most prominent families within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Huntsman dropped out of high-school to join a rock band called the Wizards.
Huntsman eventually enrolled at the University of Utah through a program that granted admission without a high school diploma. He then went on a Mormon mission to Taiwan, where he learned to speak Mandarin. He graduated with a degree in political science from the University of Pennsylvania, and then entered public service, eventually working for Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
Jon Huntsman Backed Legislation on Climate Change, Civil Unions
In 2004, Huntsman secured the governorship in solidly conservative Utah, and was re-elected in 2008 with more than 75 percent of the vote. As governor, he accepted stimulus monies, supported legislation to deal with climate change and backed civil unions for gay couples, a position Huntsman has adamantly defended since.
Huntsman resigned his governorship in 2009 when Obama, noting his experience in the region and his language proficiency, tapped him to serve as his ambassador to China. After serving two years in his diplomatic post, Huntsman submitted a letter of resignation in February, making his departure effective April 30, 2011.
Huntsman has indicated his late entry into the race and relative anonymity among Republican voters will, in the end, work to his advantage. Huntsman has said in the past he believes his experience as governor, foreign dignitary and private sector businessman trumps any controversy generated around past positions he's held on gay marriage, cap and trade, the stimulus or a health care mandate.
In a blast email to supporters Huntsman sent before making his announcement, Huntsman made clear his campaign would embrace the mantle of Republican outsider.
"You'll hear things you won't be hearing from any other campaign," he said in the email. "Our campaign is different. Our ideas are different. Our results will bring America back to the top."
After he concluded his remarks, Huntsman boarded a press-filled plane headed to Exeter, N.H. In coming weeks, his campaign has stops scheduled in Florida, South Carolina, Utah, California, Texas and elsewhere.
-ABC News' Sarah Kunin contributed to this report.