Huntsman's decision to quit presidential race 'came from his gut'

Published: Monday, Jan. 16 2012 6:06 p.m. MST

Republican presidential candidate, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, accompanied by his wife Mary Kaye Huntsman, announces he is ending his campaign, Monday, Jan. 16, 2012, in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Charles Dharapak, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. told supporters he had a "ticket to ride" after last week's New Hampshire presidential primary, but he already knew his race was coming to an end.

"He's a realist," Jeff Wright, Huntsman's Salt Lake-based national finance chairman, told the Deseret News shortly after Huntsman announced Monday he was dropping his bid for the White House. "This came from his gut."

Just days before South Carolina's Saturday primary, Huntsman endorsed GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney, the other Republican in the race with ties to Utah as the former leader of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and a fellow Mormon.

Because Huntsman has lagged so far behind the rest of the GOP field in most polls it was not clear his endorsement would have any significant impact on Romney in Saturday's primary election.

Huntsman's decision to exit followed a disappointing third-place finish in New Hampshire's Jan. 10 GOP primary, behind Romney and Texas Rep. Ron Paul despite a last-minute surge of support.

Since Huntsman had focused all of his campaign resources on New Hampshire, even skipping the first test of presidential candidates, the Iowa caucuses earlier this month, few believed he could continue.

"Huntsman put everything into New Hampshire. It was the proverbial 'Hail Mary" and it didn’t' make it to the end zone," said Kirk Jowers, a Romney supporter who advised Huntsman as governor. "So it was inevitable he was going to drop out."

Jowers, director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said Huntsman likely took time after New Hampshire's election "to make sure everyone was at peace with abandoning the fight."

Huntsman broke the news to Wright and other key advisers Sunday evening and his decision quickly become public. Some tried to talk Huntsman into staying in the race, but not Wright.

Wright said he, too, is enough of a realist to realize the race was over.

"But I also think this was the right decision for him to make. I think he is leaving the race at a very good time in an honorable manner," Wright said. "Which is who he is. He's a very honorable person."

Although political observers speculate the Huntsman campaign was out of money, Wright said, had the resources to continue.

"After New Hampshire, he had a spike in fundraising," Wright said, acknowledging that the average contribution of $120 wasn't enough to pay for the media campaign needed in South Carolina.

He said the campaign took in "hundreds of thousands of dollars" online. But had Huntsman finished in the No. 2 spot in New Hampshire as his campaign had hoped, "we would have been talking millions of dollars," Wright said.

Huntsman put at least $2 million of his own money into his campaign and his father, billionaire industrialist and philanthropist Jon Huntsman Sr., is a big contributor to the so-called "super political action committee" supporting Huntsman.

Huntsman Sr. was by his son's side at Monday's announcement, along with Huntsman's wife and four of his five daughters. The now-former candidate said the presidential race had turned toxic and was not helping the GOP's efforts to re-take the White House.

"This race has degenerated into an onslaught of negative and personal attacks," he said, also accusing President Barack Obama, the Democratic leader who named him U.S. ambassador to China, of engaging in "class warfare."

Wright said Huntsman "was very concerned that South Carolina was becoming a negative quagmire and he did not want to be part of that. I think that had a great influence on his decision, that it's just gotten beyond nasty."

Dave Woodard, a political science professor and pollster at Clemson University in South Carolina, said negative TV commercials are dominating the local airwaves. Most are aimed at Romney as the frontrunner.

"It's bad. Believe me, it's bad," Woodard said. "What's so astonishing is there's so much of it. In the afternoon, around the news hours, we're not selling cars and furniture over here. It's all politics."

Woodard said Huntsman's endorsement might not help Romney much. He noted that only a half-dozen out of hundreds of South Carolina residents polled overnight favored Huntsman.

"No great loss, I think, in terms of outcome," Woodard said.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who is campaigning for Romney in South Carolina, said the endorsement is "a very nice gesture. It will help the party " by making Romney appear even more electable.

Chaffetz, who ran Huntsman's 2004 campaign for governor and served as his chief of staff, is one of many Utah politicians who have backed Romney. A few, including Gov. Gary Herbert, who was Huntsman's lieutenant governor, chose to avoid making an endorsement in the race.

Huntsman, though, was a popular governor, easily winning reelection to a second term in 2008. He stepped down less than a year later to become ambassador to China, a post he held until resigning last spring to return to the United States and launch his presidential bid.

Last fall, he purchased a $1.8 million condo in downtown Salt Lake City's new City Creek residential, entertainment and shopping complex, intended to be his legal residence for voting purposes. But the family also has a much larger home in Washington, D.C.

Wright said the Huntsman would leave South Carolina after meeting with staff, volunteers and donors Monday for an undisclosed location outside of Utah.

"He was very optimistic about his future. I think he has a good perspective on where he is and where he wants to go," Wright said, declining to be more specific. "He's young and has a bright future."

His bid has been viewed as a warm-up to another run in 2016 if Obama is re-elected.  But Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, said he's not in a good position to run again.

"Huntsman didn't have that big victory," Scala said, that would allow him to claim support from a significant segment of GOP voters.

Plus, he said, there will be plenty of new faces four years from now, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who was urged to run this time.

"If Romney loses, there's a lot of talent coming up the ranks on the Republican side," Scala said. "Chris Christie has a lot more star power than Jon Huntsman."

State GOP Chairman Thomas Wright said there are options in Utah this election year for Huntsman, including a possible challenge to Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

Wright, who said he was proud of the race Huntsman ran, wasn't aware of any interest on Huntsman's part in jumping back into Utah politics.

Still, he said, "anything's possible when it comes to politics. I don't ever rule anything out."

E-mail: lisa@desnews.com, Twitter: dnewspolitics

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