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Unable To Gain Traction, Jon Huntsman Drops Out

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, flanked by his wife, Mary Kaye, announced Monday at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center in South Carolina that he is ending his run for the Republican presidential nomination.
Mark Wilson
Getty Images
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, flanked by his wife, Mary Kaye, announced Monday at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center in South Carolina that he is ending his run for the Republican presidential nomination.

Jon Huntsman billed himself as the Harley-riding, mild-mannered candidate of civility. But his moderate positions never registered with Republican primary voters and left him languishing in the polls.

Huntsman, 51, ended his bid for the Republican presidential nomination Monday after struggling to keep pace in a largely conservative field. He also failed to distinguish himself as the Mitt Romney alternative, unable to escape the shadow of the other millionaire former governor and Mormon in the race.

"I believe it is now time for our party to unite around the candidate best equipped to defeat Barack Obama," Huntsman said in Myrtle Beach, S.C. He went on to say that despite his differences with Romney, he would be supporting him.

Huntsman, the former Utah governor, resigned as President Obama's ambassador to China last year to launch his candidacy. But he had a host of challenges from the start.

His entire strategy had to be predicated on 'If Mitt Romney doesn't get the nomination, then I'll be well positioned to get his voters.' That's a long shot of a strategy.

"With Mitt Romney in the race, I thought it'd be very hard to have another candidate with essentially a similar background," said University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank. "And even though he's coming out of a conservative state and has a fairly conservative record, he's not nearly as conservative as the other people in the race. He just can't make that argument."

Huntsman firmly opposes abortion, but supports civil unions for gays and lesbians. As other candidates fired up the conservative base with anti-Obama rhetoric, Huntsman struggled to offer a compelling explanation why he was running, ultimately, against his former boss. And while opponents derided China as a U.S. rival and even a military threat, he advocated increasing U.S. engagement with the Asian power.

Huntsman also took jabs at social conservatives with his remarks about science. His Twitter message in August: "I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy."

And days later in ABC News' This Week: "The minute that the Republican Party becomes the ... anti-science party, we have a huge problem. We lose a whole lot of people that would otherwise allow us to win the election in 2012."

There were other missteps, like his decision to headquarter his campaign in Orlando, Florida. The move indicated that the Huntsman campaign believed he'd do well enough in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina to make his strongest push in the Florida primary on Jan. 31. But weak fundraising and an ineffective campaign message — as the candidate of civility — left Huntsman at the back of the pack and unable to mount a serious bid.

By late September, the campaign abandoned a traditional three-state strategy and decided to move operations to New Hampshire, placing all its hopes on a strong showing in the Granite State.

Beating Up On Romney

The other candidates freely and often take shots at each other, and especially at Romney, as the front-runner. Huntsman nearly always declined to directly attack most of his opponents, but saved his powder for Romney, at whom he lobbed some memorable salvos.

A Huntsman campaign ad in October presented Romney as a flip-flopper. It consisted of archive video of previous Romney remarks that would become a blueprint for Romney critics among both conservatives and Democrats.

"When there's a question about whether you're running for the White House or running for the Waffle House, then you've got a big problem with the American people," Huntsman said of Romney on NBC's Meet the Press.

On CNN, he likened Romney to "a perfectly lubricated weather vane."

But Huntsman never could gain traction.

"His entire strategy had to be predicated on 'If Mitt Romney doesn't get the nomination, then I'll be well positioned to get his voters'. That's a long shot of a strategy," said Burbank of the University of Utah.

Betting On The Granite State

Huntsman skipped Iowa to hunker down in New Hampshire and make his first attempt at building a ground game. He'd hoped he would play better among the moderates and independents in New Hampshire, where voters not registered with a political party can participate in either primary.

New Hampshire voters were the first to see a Huntsman ad, paid for by the super PAC, "Our Destiny," which supports Huntsman and is funded largely by his billionaire father. The ad introduces the candidate by presenting a stark picture of a nation "literally collapsing," and then bringing in Huntsman as the candidate with the solution. The ad ends with this: "Why haven't we heard of this guy?"

Huntsman threw himself into New Hampshire in the way that fellow GOP hopeful Rick Santorum had tirelessly mined Iowa for votes. Huntsman crisscrossed the state, held gatherings in people's living rooms and made some 160 campaign stops.

Huntsman also borrowed from the last Republican to win New Hampshire, Sen. John McCain.

McCain won New Hampshire in 2004 and 2008, and this year endorsed Romney. But that didn't stop Huntsman from adopting McCain's 2008 "Country First" slogan. Huntsman also hired a number of advisers from McCain's campaigns.

Huntsman worked in his new slogan during a debate on Meet the Press, during which he got more air time than in previous debates and turned in perhaps his strongest performance.

Responding to a shot from Romney during the previous night's debate, when he slammed Huntsman for serving under Obama, Huntsman said: "This nation is divided ... because of attitudes like that," pointing at Romney on the stage. "He criticized me, while he was out raising money, for serving my country in China, yes, under a Democrat, like my two sons are doing in the United States Navy. They're not asking what the political affiliation the president is. ... I will always put my country first, and I think that's important."

His showing built on the good news of an endorsement from New England's most influential newspaper, The Boston Globe, which snubbed Massachusetts' own in Romney.

Huntsman did make his strongest showing in New Hampshire, getting 17 percent of the vote and finishing third behind Romney and Ron Paul.

Challenges In S. Carolina

But politically, South Carolina is as different from New Hampshire as Huntsman is from his opponents. With its more conservative, evangelical electorate, the state is not a natural fit for Huntsman and he was polling in the single digits.

On the campaign trail, South Carolina Republican voters seemed to prefer candidates who were making more strident rebukes of Obama. As expected, they were wary of his term inside the Obama administration, and objected to his support for civil unions and embrace of evolution and climate change.

Huntsman had hoped to survive South Carolina and find new life in Florida. But the brief momentum he'd gained in New Hampshire quickly faded.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corey Dade is a national correspondent for the NPR Digital News team. With more than 15 years of journalism experience, he writes news analysis about federal policy, national politics, social trends, cultural issues and other topics for NPR.org.