Jon Huntsman quit his month-old governor's race Wednesday, saying Republican Party unity and business demands must take precedence over his hopes for the chief executive office.
Appearing in a morning news conference in his company headquarters with Gov. Norm Bangerter the man Huntsman said just weeks ago couldn't keep the governor's office in Republican hands Huntsman said he was out of the race.After reading his statement, Huntsman sat down teary-eyed and declined to answer reporters' questions. Aides said Huntsman and his family will leave the state Wednesday for a short vacation.
Bangerter said he welcomed Huntsman's decision and both men were gracious at the news conference.
The governor said Huntsman bowed out with no strings attached. Both men said they remain friends, shook hands and hugged each others' wives different reactions from those seen March 15 when Huntsman shocked the political establishment by challenging the incumbent Republican.
The coalition broken March 15 is now back together, with Bangerter saying Huntsman will play a major role in his administration's economic development activities. While that role hasn't been directly defined, Bangerter said, "He will be no less than a key senior adviser to me on economic development. Jon and I will be a strong team to create jobs in Utah."
Huntsman said he will completely support Bangerter and asked "all independents" to come back into the party. Huntsman was apparently referring to Merrill Cook, who considered challenging Bangerter within the party until Huntsman beat him to it. Cook then announced his candidacy and filed as an independent.
Cook said Wednesday he will not abandon his independent candidacy.
Bangerter and Huntsman ended the news conference by grasping hands and holding them high over their heads. Huntsman's smile was a bit tentative, but Bangerter was grinning from ear to ear.
There's good reason for that. Huntsman's departure removes the greatest immediate stumbling block to the governor's re-election. Huntsman was leading Bangerter by 10 points in public opinion polls. An insider to the Bangerter campaign recently put the GOP race in this perspective: "Huntsman has to make a mistake. If he doesn't, the governor is in real danger of being beaten in the Republican primary."
Huntsman's departure returns the race to square one, with Bangerter, the incumbent Republican, against former Salt Lake Mayor Ted Wilson, the Democrat, and Cook running an outside race.
Bangerter still has an uphill fight against Wilson, who leads the governor by 28 points in the most recent Dan Jones & Associates poll conducted for the Deseret News and KSL-TV.
Huntsman, 50, talked at some length about his reasons for leaving.
"The Republican Party must now be united we cannot afford a divisive contest through the September primary," he said. "When I entered the race, I never envisioned a lengthy, fragmented party division and never anticipated Republicans bolting the party to run as independents."
He added that his recent 10-day trip to Asia opened new business opportunities "the culmination of my life's work in business" and that to take advantage of those opportunities will take his full efforts.
Huntsman listed party unity and business as the reasons for ending his short campaign, but other factors came into play, Republicans close to him told the Deseret News.
Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, is Bangerter's campaign chairman and a close friend of Huntsman. He went on the Asian trip with Huntsman, a trip planned before Huntsman announced March 15 that he was going to challenge Bangerter. "They had a lot of time to talk about this race," said one GOP party official.
Garn, in a Washington, D.C., news conference, denied he had any influence on Huntsman. "I had nothing to do with it. As the governor's chairman I was not in position to advise an opponent" during their recent trip together.
Garn bristled when reporters said they doubted that he and Huntsman could travel together without mentioning the governor's race. "I have walked that line for a month."
Also, while Huntsman was gone, several critical news reports were published about Huntsman's time in the Nixon White House and about early business dealings. While several Republicans said those reports did have an impact on Huntsman, Lillian Garrett, Huntsman's campaign manager, said they played no part in Huntsman's decision not to run.
"I'm extremely disappointed" about Huntsman's decision, said Dan Marriott, former U.S. congressman and Huntsman's campaign co-chairman. "But if a person doesn't want to be a candidate and go through the fires of campaigning, it's better to get out before he starts."
Despite Bangerter's and Huntsman's talk of uniting the Republican Party, Wilson thinks the party has been wounded by Huntsman's brief foray into politics.
"It's going to be very hard to unite the party," Wilson said. "Words alone won't do it. It will take a lot more than this act. I think a lot of the damage has already been done. There were words a couple of weeks ago about the governor running a failed campaign. I think the Republican Party is going to have a hard time stepping around that."Comment on this story
Ironically, Marriott agrees with Wilson that the Republican Party may not heal.
"I think it depends on Norm Bangerter and whether he can now open up to all parts of the party instead of his own closed group. The monkey is on his back now," Marriott said. Bangerter indirectly answered Marriott's concern when he said during the news conference that everyone is welcome in the party and that Huntsman supporters "have nothing to fear from Norm Bangerter."
In saying the party must unite, Huntsman added that his main goal in running for governor is to provide more and better jobs for Utahns. "More jobs expand the tax base and that means much needed relief for Utah's taxpayers and additional dollars for our children's education. The building of our economy and creating jobs is an will be far more improtant to me than the actual title of governor. I can bring in new jobs outside this race," he said.
Huntsman has already spent almost $300,000 on the race. He has spent $268,000 on TV advertisements, some of which were running as late as Tuesday night. He had opened a campaign headquarters, hired staff and gained $250,000 in pledges. He'd also loaned his fledgling campaign $100,000, money he hoped would be paid back.