Huntsman: A boutique candidacy that didn't sell

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MYRTLE BEACH, SC -- A number of Jon Huntsman's core positions were deeply conservative.  His pro-growth economic plan was nearly everything the Wall Street Journal editorial page could have wanted.  He was strongly pro-life.  Strongly Second Amendment.  Yet conservative Republicans stayed away from his candidacy in droves, and the few people who were attracted to the Huntsman campaign were moderate Republicans, independents, Democrats -- and the media.

Why?  Huntsman's problem was that, whatever his position on some key issues, he sent out political and cultural signals that screamed NPR, and not Fox News, that screamed liberal, and not conservative. Even though conservatives agreed with Huntsman on many things, they instinctively sensed he wasn't their guy.  It wasn't hard for them to figure out.

As he began his campaign, Huntsman hired as his chief strategist John Weaver, the man who ran the 2000 John McCain presidential campaign in which McCain went almost out of his way to alienate Republican voters while trying to appeal to independents.  It was an early sign Huntsman might have a problematic relationship with the Republican base.

Last summer, Huntsman invited photographer Annie Leibovitz to take pictures of him for a spread in Vogue, which accompanied a fawning profile by liberal journalist Jacob Weisberg.  The article set out in large ways and small how Huntsman didn't quite fit in on the Republican campaign trail.  For example, this is how Weisberg described Huntsman visiting a diner in a small South Carolina town: "Surveying the motley crowd with an ironic expression, he begins, 'All I can tell you is that I never thought I would be making an appearance at Mutt's BBQ.'" Huntsman was never a candidate who could seem completely at home at Mutt's, or with motley crowds.

Beyond that, Huntsman made no effort to be diplomatic about the ways in which he differed with some parts of the Republican base. "To be clear," Huntsman said in a tweet on August 18.  "I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming.  Call me crazy."  The point is not that Huntsman had to be a creationist or climate skeptic.  The point is that he managed to say it in a way that appealed to people on the left and irritated people on the right.

Finally, in the days before the New Hampshire primary -- his best chance to make his mark in the Republican race -- Huntsman suggested that today's Republicans are insane. In an interview with Politico, Huntsman said he believes in the theory of cycles of history.  "I believe we are in one such cycle," Huntsman said.  "I think that cycle ultimately takes us to a sane Republican Party based on real ideas."

It didn't take a stretch of inference to conclude that Huntsman believes the current Republican Party is not sane.  The next day, after a campaign appearance at a coffee shop in Hampstead, New Hampshire, I asked him to elaborate. "We are sane when we stand up and we talk about real solutions for the American people," Huntsman said.  "We are insane when we stand up and light our hair on fire, when we engage in political theatrics and soundbites that just don't make any sense."

On election day in New Hampshire, I appeared on an NPR program and said that there was a certain boutique quality to Huntsman's candidacy -- that he was seeking to appeal to a small, specialized segment of the electorate.  It was an effective way for Huntsman to define himself but not a very effective way to win.  A short time later, a woman named Carol, from Hanover, New Hampshire, phoned in to disagree.  "He doesn't seem very boutique-y to me," she said.  But she noted that the only place she had heard him was Vermont Public Radio, and then she described what she had done that morning, on election day: "I'm an independent.  I went in, I registered Republican, I voted for Huntsman, and on my way out the door I switched back to independent."

Appealing to Carol, and not to the Republican base, was no way to win the GOP nomination.  Huntsman probably knew that all along, but he finally surrendered to reality on Sunday night, when he sent out word that he's out of the Republican race.

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Byron York

Chief Political Correspondent
The Washington Examiner