Jon Huntsman dropped out of the Republican presidential race on Monday
Huntsman was considered a moderate Republican, like front-runner Mitt Romney
Romney "had a leg up on" Huntsman, rival candidate Rick Santorum notes
In a Republican primary focused on which conservative would emerge as the anti-Romney, Jon Huntsman was unable to position himself as anything more than a mini-Romney.
His blend of moderate and conservative positions, as well as his Mormon faith, combined to cast Huntsman as too similar to fellow Mormon Mitt Romney and therefore unable to overcome the former Massachusetts governor’s huge advantage in name recognition, funding and organization.
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Huntsman’s fate was sealed last week in the New Hampshire primary, when he finished third after devoting all of his time and resources to the Granite State and its generally moderate electorate.
Romney easily won the first-in-the-nation primary in what amounted to his back yard – the Massachusetts neighbor where he owns property.
More crippling for Huntsman was how Romney topped him decisively – 38% to 24% – among primary voters in New Hampshire who identified themselves as moderate or liberal, according to exit polls.
Even libertarian champion Rep. Ron Paul of Texas topped Huntsman with 26% of the moderate-liberal support, the exit polling showed.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, one of the remaining conservative candidates trying to become the right-wing foil to Romney’s front-running campaign, said Huntsman’s demise came as no surprise.
“Gov. Huntsman ran as a moderate trying to compete with Gov. Romney for the establishment moderate vote,” Santorum said at a campaign event Monday in South Carolina, site of the next primary. “Gov. Romney had a leg up on him as being a solid moderate that the establishment could get behind, and Gov. Huntsman was unable to crack through that.”
From the beginning, Huntsman knew that his hopes rested in New Hampshire.
The former Utah governor virtually skipped Iowa and its January 3 caucuses, instead spending months in New Hampshire to hold more than 150 events as he crossed the state extolling his independence, trustworthiness and experience.
Huntsman boasted of a tax-cutting record in Utah, as well as strong foreign policy credentials from serving as ambassador to China.
However, his diplomatic stint came with a hitch – he was appointed by and served under the administration of President Barack Obama, the main target of Republican wrath in the primary season.
In the end, Huntsman got just 17% of the vote in New Hampshire, behind Romney at 39% and Texan Paul at 23%.
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From the day he announced his candidacy in June, shortly after returning from China, Huntsman tried to depict himself as a truth-teller with the brains and experience to tackle the nation’s economic woes while standing against some extreme right-wing stances.
He supported the science of climate change, and broke with tea party conservatives – and the rest of his GOP presidential rivals – by backing a deal reached by Obama and Congress to raise the federal debt ceiling.
At the same time, Huntsman opposes abortion, supports congressional term limits and proposed a conservative economic policy that included lower tax rates and an end to some loopholes.
As the campaign evolved, Huntsman repeatedly spoke of a trust and unity deficit in the country that plagued the political environment and needed to be fixed.
However, that message failed to resonate with voters, who considered Huntsman’s blend of moderate and conservative policies as a similar package to what Romney offered even though Romney has shifted to the right politically.
During the campaign, Huntsman targeted Romney’s changing positions on issues over the years as the main difference between the two.
Romney once ran as a pro-choice candidate for the U.S. Senate, but now is anti-abortion. He also brought health care reform to Massachusetts, but now vows to repeal the Affordable Care Act passed by Obama and Democrats.
“I think when you are on too many sides of the issues of the day … it makes you unelectable,” Huntsman said of Romney last November in an appearance on the NBC program “Meet the Press.”
In announcing Monday that he was bowing out of the election campaign, Huntsman urged Republicans to unite behind Romney as the only Republican with a chance of beating Obama in November.
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“Despite our differences and the space between us on some of the issues, I believe that candidate is Gov. Mitt Romney,” Huntsman said.
According to a CNN/ORC International poll released Friday, Huntsman’s move may slightly help Romney gain support among a sliver of the moderate and establishment wing of the Republican Party. Little other impact was apparent from the numbers.
“Even after a good third-place showing in New Hampshire, nearly half of all Americans did not know who Huntsman was or did not have an opinion about him,” noted CNN Polling Director Keating Holland. “That goes a long way toward explaining why Huntsman had relatively few supporters in a post-New Hampshire nationwide poll.”
CNN’s Paul Steinhauser, Peter Hamby and Rachel Streitfeld contributed to this report.