Huntsman's 'Ticket To Ride' Ends In South Carolina

Jon Huntsman, the former ambassador to China who never connected with Republican primary voters, will withdraw Monday from the race for the presidential nomination, officials tell NPR. Huntsman is expected to endorse Mitt Romney, whom he believes is the best candidate to beat President Barack Obama in November.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep. Renee Montagne is back after some time off. Renee, welcome back.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Oh, well, thanks. Glad to be back, Steve.

INSKEEP: And you're back just in time for the South Carolina primary. Welcome.

MONTAGNE: And just in time for some changes in that race. Conservative voters remain split, as many know, between several candidates. But one of those contenders got quite a boost over the weekend. Evangelical leaders met and endorsed former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum.

INSKEEP: And we'll hear more about that in a moment. First, Mitt Romney scores an endorsement today from one of his former rivals: Jon Huntsman, who's dropping out of the race.

He's making that announcement today, we're expecting. The former Utah governor put much of his campaign resources into New Hampshire - in fact, virtually all, but he finished third. NPR's Tamara Keith reports on the man who tried not to run as a typical candidate.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Of all leading GOP hopefuls, Huntsman is the only one who never even briefly surged to second place. He peaked in New Hampshire, where he had spent almost all of his time, for months. He even appeared on "Saturday Night Live" to joke about his apparent obsession with the Granite State.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

JON HUNTSMAN: I love all of America, from Dallas, Texas to Manchester, New Hampshire, from the majestic Rocky Mountains, to New Hampshire's scenic Lake Winnipesaukee.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

HUNTSMAN: From the innovation of Silicon Valley, to the affordable outlet malls in North Conway, New Hampshire.

KEITH: But all that campaigning didn't exactly pay off on primary night.

HUNTSMAN: I'd say third place is a ticket to ride, ladies and gentlemen.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

HUNTSMAN: Hello, South Carolina.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

KEITH: As we now know, South Carolina is where Huntsman's ride ends.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KEITH: It all started back in June, with a series of Web videos showing the candidate riding a dirt bike through the Utah desert, with this slightly twangy music in the background. In white lettering on the screen of the last video, it said: Tomorrow, the candidate for president who rides motocross to relax. From there, Republican political consultant Rob Stutzman says Huntsman's messaging didn't really improve.

ROB STUTZMAN: I think he'll be remembered as that nice, interesting, smart guy that never had anything to say, other than elect me because I can be more civil, which is not exactly the winning message in a Republican presidential primary.

KEITH: Stutzman says GOP primary voters are angry at the president, and Huntsman didn't give them any red meat. In fact, Huntsman had just come off a stint as ambassador to China. He had been a part of the Obama administration. And then there were the ever-important debates.

STUTZMAN: His debate performances were uneven. At times, he gave very interesting, insightful answers, and then at times, he seemed to be telling inside jokes.

KEITH: Here are just a couple of examples. First, from the Bloomberg debate in October.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

HUNTSMAN: I would first and foremost disagree with Rick on one measure, that is Pennsylvania is not the gas capital of the country. Washington, D.C. is the gas capital of the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KEITH: And this CNN debate in September.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

HUNTSMAN: To hear these two go at it over here is almost incredible. You've got Governor Romney, who called it a fraud in his book "No Apology." I don't know if that was written by Kurt Cobain or not.

KEITH: Yes, that was a reference to the grunge band Nirvana and its song "All Apologies." Barely anyone got it that night, either. At other moments in the debates, Huntsman made comments that seemed targeted more at moderates and Democrats than the primary voters he would need to win the nomination.

This is him at a Politico NBC News debate in September.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

HUNTSMAN: When you make comments that fly in the face of what 98 out of 100 climate scientists have said, when you call into question the science of evolution, all I am saying is that in order for the Republican Party to win, we can't run from science.

KEITH: Unfortunately for Huntsman, arguments like that never helped him gain traction with the people who were actually voting.

Tamara Keith, NPR News.

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