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Hyped by media, but never surging with voters, Huntsman bows out of GOP race

 

He had the look. He had the resume. He had the money. He had the beautiful family. By golly, he had the hair.

But Jon Huntsman, despite the hype, never seemed to have the votes. And on Monday, he bailed out of the Republican presidential primary contest, trying to keep his dignity intact as he slammed his own party for going negative on one another.

"Rather than trying to advance our common goal, this race has degenerated into an onslaught of negative and personal attacks not worthy of the American people," Huntsman said. "At its core the Republican Party is a party of ideas, but the current toxic form of our political discourse does not help our cause and is just one of the many reasons the American people has lost trust in their leaders. ...

"Today, I am suspending my campaign for the presidency. I believe it is now time for our party to unite around the candidate best equipped to defeat Barack Obama. Despite our differences and the space between us on some of the issues, I believe that candidate is Governor Mitt Romney," Huntsman said.

Following a campaign kickoff that promised not hope, but "answers," for America, the former U.S. ambassador to China came limping out of his firewall state of New Hampshire with a third-place "ticket to ride" to South Carolina. 

But his ability to gain traction in the first-in-the-South primary just wasn't there, and as the only remaining candidate who never enjoyed a surge, even a brief one, Huntsman decided to throw in the towel.

That Huntsman never executed the enthusiasm from Republican primary voters speaks to a peculiarity surrounding his bid -- only rarely has there been such a wide gap between a presidential candidate's positive media coverage and his election performance.

"Were it not for the modern media fascination with him, he wouldn't even be invited to be on the stage at debates," GOP consultant Joe Brettell said.

Officials and analysts say the buzz around Huntsman was rooted in several factors. Foremost, there was the novelty of a candidate running against his former boss. The story of one of President Obama's top ambassadors returning from his appointment/exile in China to challenge the incumbent was too titillating to resist.

Then there was his pitch as the centrist, self-proclaimed "sane Republican" who openly tweaked his rivals for their positions.

"To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy," he tweeted last August. 

Mocking the beliefs of a large chunk of the GOP primary base might not have been smart politics, but it was comforting to the editorial boards of some news organizations.

For a candidate so far back in the polls, Huntsman received a considerable number of newspaper endorsements, including big ones from the Boston Globe and The State, which alternately called him "bold," a "realist" and "the best candidate to seize this moment in GOP history." 

The Globe liked Huntsman's criticism of those who "reject evolution and the science behind global warming." The State, defining itself as the "sensible center," said Huntsman "isn't merely a partisan."

The Concord Monitor expressed similar sentiments in its endorsement, describing the candidate as "a consistent but never doctrinaire conservative."

U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who worked as Huntsman's gubernatorial campaign manager and chief of staff when Huntsman was Utah governor, said Huntsman's centrist leanings were attractive to the media, as was "his proximity to Barack Obama."

"The media seemed infatuated with him," he told FoxNews.com.

But, Chaffetz said, despite Huntsman's truly conservative record, he did not have a "natural base" with the party.

"Mitt Romney built his over the course of years. Newt Gingrich is the former speaker of the House. Jon Huntsman just spent the last couple years working for Barack Obama in China," Chaffetz said. "Probably not bumping into a lot of people from Manchester."

From the time he entered, Huntsman earned attention across all spectrums of the media. The Wall Street Journal in September praised his economic plan as the best in the field. The National Review, which in December published a non-endorsement of Gingrich, cited Huntsman as one of three candidates -- along with Romney and Rick Santorum -- who showed promise.

His campaign announcement, set to the backdrop of the Statue of Liberty just like Ronald Reagan's general election campaign kickoff in 1980, similarly garnered much attention. The Washington Post, in its write-up at the time, called Huntsman the "biggest wild card in the 2012 field," one who could either surge or go belly up.

Brettell said Huntsman benefited from a widespread media gamble of "looking smart by picking a dark horse," but that the concentration of evangelicals and values voters in the early primary states -- like Iowa, which Huntsman skipped -- always loomed as a hurdle to his success.

"A lot of that early buzz was fueled by people trying to look like they were insiders," Brettell said. "But the reality is the modern primary calendar didn't support the resume that Jon Huntsman brought to the table."

Beyond the media buzz, Huntsman didn’t have much of a network of support. He had a few notable political names connected to the campaign, including the controversial former John McCain adviser John Weaver and pollster Whit Ayres.

As with nearly every candidate, he had a PAC -- this one called Our Destiny PAC -- at his back, reportedly funded in part by his wealthy father. Campaign finance records crunched by the Center for Responsive Politics show he pulled in donations from Wall Street, the University of Utah and executives connected with Ultimate Fighting Championship.

But he lacked big-name surrogates like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is backing Romney, on the campaign trail. His surrogates were most often members of his family, namely his telegenic daughters.

Chaffetz, despite having worked for Huntsman, did not endorse him, though he described his former boss as "very formidable in whatever he does." Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, another home-state member of Congress who used to work for Huntsman, also did not endorse him. Neither did Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, who was Huntsman's lieutenant governor before Huntsman left to become ambassador to China.

Despite not winning over the home team, as Utah governor, Huntsman cut the state sales tax, implemented a flat income tax and presided over some of the strongest job growth in the country. He led the company founded by his father. He served as ambassador to Singapore under President George H.W. Bush. While ambassador to China he was known for being tough on the country when it came to human rights.

His profile contained a fair number of flourishes that could make the average voter look twice. He speaks Mandarin -- as he reminded voters when he used the language to tell off Romney at a debate. He rides a motorcycle. He's a rock-and-roll musician, playing a mean keyboard.

But while he was conservative on issues like abortion, he wasn't on others -- he backed civil unions for gay couples and he supported caps on emissions, though he now says he doesn’t support a national cap-and-trade system.

And his time with the Obama administration was undeniably a hurdle in the primaries.

"There was a lot of kind of fascination with the guy coming from all kinds of places, but not the place where the Republican Party is situated today," said Steffen Schmidt, political science professor at Iowa State University.

Huntsman aggressively courted New Hampshire's storied independent voters but appeared to ignore the parts of the base that other candidates were scrambling for. He even openly mocked Iowa as a state that picks corn, not presidential candidates.

Jane Aitken, co-founder of the New Hampshire Tea Party Coalition, said her group never got a response from Huntsman when they invited him -- and other candidates -- to a meeting.

Huntsman's campaign did make its share of missteps from the very beginning. At his kickoff, press passes had an inaccurate spelling of the candidate's name. He set up his campaign headquarters in Florida, only to move it to New Hampshire.

Schmidt said Huntsman might have been able to gain traction were it not for Ron Paul sucking away the libertarians and young voters in New Hampshire. Still, he said Huntsman lacked the vision to match the hype.

"You couldn't really identify any big plans with him," he said. "What is Huntsman's big story? There isn't one."