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Huntsman, the man who wasn't there

By Dan Schnur, Special to CNN
updated 9:30 AM EST, Tue January 17, 2012
The conventional wisdom is Jon Huntsman was unnecessarily confrontational toward conservatives early on, says Dan Schnur.
The conventional wisdom is Jon Huntsman was unnecessarily confrontational toward conservatives early on, says Dan Schnur.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jon Huntsman drops out of GOP race after weak performance in New Hampshire
  • Dan Schnur: Huntsman did not self-destruct, but his candidacy never caught on
  • Schnur says Huntsman didn't become much of a presence in the GOP debates
  • Huntsman's decision to skip the Iowa caucuses helped lessen media's interest in him, he says

Editor's note: Dan Schnur is the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. He was a political strategist in John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign and press secretary for former California Gov. Pete Wilson.

(CNN) -- When Jon Huntsman announced his campaign for president last summer, he received the type of media attention that presumed he would be an immediate and formidable challenger for the Republican nomination.

Unlike other early casualties like Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann, Huntsman did not self-destruct. There was no spectacular immolation or flameout that rocked the political world, nor had there been the type of stratospheric rise that marked Cain and Bachmann's campaigns.

Instead, there was just a long, steady flatline, with maybe the slightest sign of a heartbeat in the days before the New Hampshire primary, but far too little and too late to make any difference. It was only in the superheated world of cable TV and online media that his withdrawal received more than a moment's notice.

Dan Schnur
Dan Schnur

So what went wrong for a candidate who entered the race with a biography and a bank account that seemed to presume a major impact on the primary campaign?

The conventional wisdom is that Huntsman was unnecessarily confrontational toward conservatives early in his campaign, the Republican who didn't seem to want to be a Republican. For a candidate with such strong conservative credentials on almost every issue, the strategy didn't make sense. But that combative approach, combined with his time in the Obama administration, allowed him to be typecast by a lot of GOP voters from the outset and he never recovered.

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The other, bigger problem he faced was his lack of presence in the candidate debates. The debates this year, for better or worse, became the stage on which the contenders defined themselves for the voters in the early primary states. They provided campaign-changing moments for Cain, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich and others. But Huntsman just faded into the background and was never able to use them as a platform from which he could draw attention to his candidacy.

Exacerbating his irrelevance was Huntsman's decision to skip the Iowa caucuses, condemning him to be overlooked in most daily campaign coverage. John McCain made the same decision 12 years earlier and used the time to build a New Hampshire campaign that catapulted him to victory in that state's primary. But McCain's biography as a Vietnam POW drew public attention in a way that Huntsman's time as ambassador to China could never duplicate.

Worse, Huntsman never developed a policy proposal that created a rationale for an insurgent candidacy the way McCain's embrace of campaign finance reform did for him that year.

It's not that Huntsman made any major errors in his campaign. He was perfectly presentable and mostly polite, the perfect lodger and the perfect guest. For most of the campaign, though, Jon Huntsman was simply the man who wasn't there.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Schnur

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