In the end, Jon Huntsman’s long-awaited surge came too late. After a double-digit gain in the polls, the former Utah governor finished a disappointing third and staggered to less-familiar turf in South Carolina in hopes of saving his campaign. “We’re in the hunt,” he told supporters.
Huntsman gambled his candidacy on New Hampshire, spending almost all of his time and money in the Granite State. He now has few resources—and not much more hope—in South Carolina. Putting a positive spin on the New Hampshire results, the candidate told his supporters on primary night, “I say third place is a ticket to ride!”
Huntsman believed the state’s moderate, independent streak was a good match for his bipartisan resume. But despite moving his headquarters there from Florida in September, the White House hopeful struggled to gain traction until last week. In one of two strong debate performances, Huntsman belittled front-runner Mitt Romney for criticizing his service as U.S. ambassador to China in President Obama’s administration. Crowds at his events had also begun to swell, and he began airing his first official ads of the campaign.
Channeling that momentum to South Carolina, however, could be difficult. He’s visited the state only about 10 times, according to Richard Quinn, his Palmetto State consultant. By contrast, he held roughly 160 public events in New Hampshire, which he turned into his adopted home state in the months before the primary. His infrequent visits raise questions about the quality of the organization that awaits Huntsman when he arrives—he has only four staffers in the state.
The state’s evangelical hue—60 percent of Republicans who voted in the 2008 primary self-identified as born-again Christians—also makes it less favorable than New Hampshire for the Mormon Huntsman.
“Obviously, our guy is an underdog here,” Quinn said. “He’s been polling single digits, in fact, low single digits. We’ve not really had a budget here. We’ve not done any mail or phones or TV because the resources have been focused on New Hampshire.”
His campaign touts endorsements from former Attorney General Henry McMaster and current Attorney General Alan Wilson. Huntsman also received support from the family of popular late Gov. Carroll Campbell. And the surge that pushed him to outperform his polls in New Hampshire—incomplete returns showed him with 17 percent, compared to pre-primary polls of about 11 percent—could spill into South Carolina.
He might need it to, if not to win the nomination then to set him up for a possible 2016 presidential run. The subtext of Huntsman’s campaign has long been is that it’s a trial run for a campaign four years from now, if the Republican nominee in 2012 loses to Obama. An abysmal performance in New Hampshire, anything less than a third-place finish, would have dashed those hopes irrevocably. Instead, they are on life support, requiring a strong showing in South Carolina and the subsequent Florida primary to make those plans plausible.