Jon Huntsman Flip-Flops on Mitt Romney, His Ex-Rival

Why the outgoing candidate’s tepid endorsement doesn’t mean much.

Charles Dharapak / AP Photo

It was just a week ago that Jon Huntsman said Mitt Romney was making himself “completely unelectable” with such comments as how he liked to fire people.

On Monday morning, Huntsman fired himself as a presidential candidate and embraced Romney, a man he once said had no “core.” As an added favor, he deleted some mocking anti-Romney videos from his website and from YouTube.

But his endorsement could not have been more cursory, a mere two sentences describing Romney as “the candidate best equipped to defeat Barack Obama” and noting that they still had their differences on issues. And Romney’s absence as Huntsman spoke before a row of American flags suggests the former Massachusetts governor is more focused on appealing to conservatives, for whom a photo op with Huntsman might have been a negative. Or perhaps the two camps couldn’t come to terms on whether Huntsman might have a shot at a cabinet post in a Romney administration.

Huntsman framed his withdrawal around a blast at “toxic” campaigning, urging his former rivals to “cease attacking each other.” He said the Republican race had “degenerated into an onslaught of negative and personal attacks not worthy of the American people.”

Romney, of course, stood by while a super PAC formed by his loyalists and donors unleashed more than $3 million in Iowa attack ads against Newt Gingrich (whose own super PAC is now retaliating against Mitt). Huntsman made no effort in his brief remarks to exclude Romney from his indictment of the evils of negative campaigning.

The practical impact of Huntsman’s nominal backing is likely to be negligible, given that the man who proclaimed that his third-place New Hampshire finish had given him a “ticket to ride” has been this campaign’s Nowhere Man. Huntsman sympathizers were already likely to gravitate to the other former governor in the race, and fellow Mormon, who most closely shares his views. “Moderates are backing moderates … no surprise there,” Rick Santorum said dismissively.

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?

The pundits, many of whom admired Huntsman, kept waiting for him to surge, but they waited in vain. Although his chief strategist, John Weaver, had experience in both of John McCain’s presidential runs, he could never chart a path to victory for the client who described himself Monday as “the longest of long shots.”

Huntsman’s decision to drop out, which leaked Sunday night, wasn’t much of a surprise. He was already limping toward the South Carolina primary this Saturday, trailing Stephen Colbert in the state in one poll, which was reducing Huntsman to a punchline. And while he says he wants to back the Republican with the best chance of beating Obama—that would be Romney—I suspect Huntsman also wants to spare himself further embarrassment.

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.

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Beyond that, Huntsman’s campaign was underfunded, as his father declined to share the family fortune in service of the son's 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. His daughters started getting more attention than he did.

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

Meanwhile, a Fox News poll has Romney in a virtual tie with Obama (trailing 46-45), but here’s what’s interesting. While three quarters of the Obama backers said they were voting “for” the president and a fifth “against Romney,” some 58 percent of the former governor’s supporters said they would be voting “against Obama” and a third “for Romney.” Mitt still hasn’t fully made the case for himself—but maybe, in the end, he doesn’t have to.