MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — Whether Jon M. Huntsman Jr. has a political future or not, he will go down in history as the first American presidential candidate to deliver a retort in Mandarin Chinese during a nationally televised debate.
Huntsman, of course, hopes he’ll be remembered for much more than that.
“Today, our campaign for the presidency ends, but our campaign to build a better and more trustworthy America continues,” he said in brief remarks Monday morning at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center, scene of a TV debate that will go on without him Monday night.
He left the race as he began it, with a gracious, if noticeably unemotional, speech that featured a high-minded appeal for a more civil brand of politics. Huntsman deplored the way the GOP race had “degenerated into an onslaught of negative and personal attacks not worthy of the American people and not worthy of this critical time in our nation’s history.”
Left unsaid was his own, rich contribution to that toxic atmosphere. In recent months, he leveled increasingly desperate attacks on Romney — whom he endorsed Monday morning, in the interests of party unity, as the man “best equipped” to defeat President Barack Obama in the fall.
Notably, Romney, who arrives here Monday, wasn’t present to accept the backing of his long-time rival (their enmity stems from family feuds in Utah stirred by Huntsman’s father, Jon Sr., who attended his son’s valedictory remarks to a room filled with reporters, cameras and top campaign advisers).
The former Utah governor didn’t completely ignore what he called “the space between” him and Romney on issues. But as he, wife Mary Kaye and four of their daughters walked off the stage, Huntsman ignored shouted questions from reporters about his own slashing comments, delivered just within the last eight days, calling Romney both “unelectable” and “out of touch.”
In time, those words will be forgotten. And even before Huntsman exited the 2012 contest, his unsuccessful run was already being measured against a future try — perhaps as early as 2016.
It’s unlikely that Huntsman met his own goals as a presidential candidate, and an argument can be made that he did virtually nothing to advance his future prospects. That would be particularly true if Romney is elected and declines to offer him a decent job.
On the positive side, Huntsman leaves the race with higher name ID, at least among voters who were paying close attention to his candidacy. He didn’t particularly impress fellow Republican politicians but now has a better idea of what it takes to be a successful national candidate (more than running a one-state campaign, for starters). In his remarks Monday, Huntsman alluded to the education he got over the last seven months, when he said he was stepping down “with an even greater appreciation for American democracy.”
It’s the rare White House contender who gains the nomination on the first try. Even Ronald Reagan had to make multiple runs. Romney is just the latest example of the importance of lessons learned. His second time around is producing a noticeable jump in his campaign skills — and results.
Huntsman’s inability to emerge in New Hampshire, a state that takes its retail politics seriously, exposed his weaknesses as a campaigner (again, Romney is proving that an authenticity gap need not be a disqualifier). No doubt Huntsman will have a better rationale for his presidential ambitions, if he runs again, and a more carefully planned and executed campaign organization.
Still, it’s hard to ignore the fact that he failed to measure up in his just-ended campaign, which drew a level of media attention far out of proportion to his performance. As a result, the bar will be much higher next time, and Huntsman will be under greater pressure to prove that he can connect with Republican voters.
How he spends the interim also matters. If he’s lucky, he’ll be a Romney appointee. If not, he can carve out a role as a spokesman on issues — like foreign policy — that play to his strengths and experience. His speech Monday contained elements of his rather eclectic mix of ideas — from a strong desire to reduce U.S. military involvement and stop “nation-building” overseas to a tea party-ish call for congressional term limits.
Huntsman’s background as an Asia hand remains one of his most powerful credentials, particularly if foreign policy emerges as a more salient issue in a future presidential election. In that regard, his diplomatic resume could wind up being more important to his future than his dubious achievement as a Chinese-speaking footnote in campaign history.
2012 Tribune Co.
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