jon huntsman

01.15.12

Why Huntsman Is History

The low-key candidate could never find his footing in a crazy campaign

I’ve rarely seen a politician get less traction than Jon Huntsman.

He was close to invisible in this presidential race, except for all the media fawning. Huntsman’s decision to drop out Monday wasn’t much of a surprise, except for the fact that it came six days after he loudly announced that New Hampshire had given him a “ticket to ride”—this after a weak third-place finish. Unlike the Beatles song, it didn’t last long, not even until the South Carolina voting this Saturday.

Huntsman says he wants to back the Republican with the best chance of beating Barack Obama—that would be Mitt Romney—but I suspect he also wants to spare himself further embarrassment.

One of the big losers? South Carolina’s largest newspaper, The State, which endorsed Huntsman on Sunday as a man of “honor and old-fashioned decency and pragmatism.” Can the editors un-endorse?

Huntsman was a perfectly fine governor of Utah—quite conservative, in fact—but by the standards of today’s Republican Party, he was practically a card-carrying lefty. He never fit in with the mood of primary voters. He was unwilling to pander on climate change and other hot-button issues.

There was a patrician air around Huntsman—like Romney, the son of a rich and successful father—and he wasn’t a particularly dynamic candidate. He was charisma-challenged. He tended to fade in debates. He had no coherent message, other than that he wasn’t a far-right crazy. If he uttered a single memorable line in the past year, it escapes my memory.

He was right that serving as ambassador to China shouldn’t have been held against him, but given the GOP’s anathema for Obama, it was. Beyond that, Huntsman’s campaign was underfunded as his father declined to share the family fortune in service of his political ambitions.

It was clear that Huntsman was going nowhere when he was reduced to a one-state campaign, in New Hampshire, where Romney already had a big lead. Nothing less than an upset victory was going to revive his political pulse. In a campaign in which even Herman Cain grabbed his moment in the spotlight, Huntsman could never get above the low single digits nationally. Even the reporters grew bored and gave up on him.

The irony is that Huntsman might have made a strong general election candidate with a potential appeal to independents. But he was never in any danger of winning the nomination. He never even got to the point where the pundits wondered whether his Mormonism would hurt him. His daughters started getting more attention than he was.

In another era, Jon Huntsman might have been a plausible White House contender. But not in the Republican Party of 2012.