Huntsman: The Candidate Who Couldn't

Come up with a sentence or two that summarizes Jon Huntsman’s candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. Bet you can’t.

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Come up with a sentence or two that summarizes Jon Huntsman’s candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination. Bet you can’t.

Was he the consistently conservative former governor of Utah? A sensible moderate who could beat President Obama in the general election? The only foreign policy expert in the race? The most civil candidate -- or the coolest?

Huntsman tried to be all of these things and ended up as the least memorable candidate in the 2012 Republican primary. Even after hosting about 170 events in New Hampshire, the state that Huntsman tried to use as a launching pad to the nomination, most voters there didn’t have a clue about his message.

Winning campaigns frequently can be crystallized in a few words. Barack Obama was “hope and change.’’ George W. Bush was the “compassionate conservative.’’ Ronald Reagan was the sunny optimist who saw “morning in America’’ and “a shining city on a hill.’’ Huntsman, in contrast, sorely lacked an identity. Remember those early campaign videos in which an anonymous motocross biker cruised through the Utah mountains, supposedly piquing interest in the campaign? Huntsman never revealed what that was all about.

“There was no edge to his message, no contrast with other candidates, and he was way too subtle,’’ said Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, who endorsed Huntsman shortly before the state’s primary. “I appreciated his civility a lot, but I concluded that fundamentally, he’s a diplomat and not a politician.’’

That his decision to quit leaked out on the same day he won the endorsement of the biggest newspaper in South Carolina, The State, was emblematic of a campaign embraced by the media and political establishment but never by actual voters. While his intellect and competence was never in doubt, he never inspired a following. If there is a lesson to be learned from the 2012 GOP primary -- in which candidates like Huntsman, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich were hailed for their promise only to be pilloried for their shortcomings -- the lesson is: Don’t believe the hype.

Huntsman’s campaign was improbable from the start, and not the kind that’s just improbable enough to work. President Obama’s ambassador to China was abandoning his post to run against his own boss, whom he once called a “remarkable leader?’’ Come on. “The longest of long shots,’’ Huntsman said on Monday, when he announced he was suspending his campaign. But he proved he was serious by surrounding himself with brand names in Republican politics and rolling out a multi-state campaign launch with all of the trappings -- even the august backdrop of the Statute of Liberty. The slick marketing campaign, along with Huntsman’s good looks, pedigree and family fortune, made him look like a comer, perhaps even the candidate who could pose the greatest threat to Obama.

Huntsman never lived up to the billing. You never knew which candidate would show up to a nationally televised debate -- the one who would make obscure cultural references, or the one who could shame Mitt Romney for questioning his decision to serve in the Obama administration. Lowly poll numbers and anemic fundraising quashed a grand plan to base his campaign in Florida, the largest swing state, and forced him to hunker down in New Hampshire, much in the way Rick Santorum burrowed into Iowa. But unlike Santorum, Huntsman’s connection with the New Hampshire electorate was only strong enough for third place.

His decision to bow out instead of continuing to siphon (a few) votes away from the likely nominee, Mitt Romney, suggests he is leaving the door open for another bid for public office or political appointment. That he would endorse Romney after months of showing such little regard for him amounts to a humbling swallow of political reality -- and suggests even greater disdain for the other candidates in the race.

Less than two weeks ago, Huntsman was so determined to damage Romney that he was willing to take his remarks out of context and suggest that the ex-corporate executive enjoys firing people.

“I believe it is now time for our party to unite around the candidate best equipped to defeat Barack Obama,’’ Huntsman, who has called Romney “unelectable,’’ said on Monday.

Huntsman sought to end his campaign on a statesmanlike note, lamenting the "trust deficit'' with the voters and the personal attacks. He then recited a laundry list of issues -- from the tax code to education reform to congressional term limits -- that once again left in doubt exactly why he ran for president in the first place.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.