Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. attends a town hall meeting at the Moore… (Richard Ellis / Getty Images )
Reporting from Columbia, S.C. — In a jammed, overheated room in the University of South Carolina’s business school, Jon Huntsman Jr., who has joked that he is the “margin-of-error candidate,” touted his third-place finish in New Hampshire as a “ticket to ride” to this state’s influential primary. “That was pretty cool, standing on that stage,” he said.
Huntsman, a moderate Republican, said expectations were low for him in South Carolina and would not say what threshold he needed to reach to propel him to Florida. “One state at a time,” he said.
He also said he believed South Carolina’s voters would not simply ratify Mitt Romney, though he did not mention him by name: “People of this state don’t want to be told for whom to vote. They will not allow the establishment to tee up their favorite candidate. That’s just not how the people of this state work.”
Huntsman launched his remarks to a crowd of mostly students by presenting himself as a candidate who eschews partisan attacks and hopes to bring the nation together to solve what he described as an economic and trust deficit.
He defended his role in a Democratic administration as President Obama’s ambassador to China. “Here’s the rap on Huntsman. Huntsman crossed a partisan line to serve his country. I did and I wouldn’t trade that for anything,” he said. “If you believe in putting politics first, I’m not your guy.”
After his town hall, he told reporters he thought the GOP presidential contenders assailing Romney’s role with Bain Capital, a private equity firm that controlled two companies that cut jobs in South Carolina, should cool their rhetoric. He declined to say whether he thought it hurt the party.
He did not take on the other candidates directly, but when he began his speech, he said: “No teleprompter. No speech. No notes. This is from the heart, which is, I believe, the way it ought to be.” Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who won in Iowa and New Hampshire and is leading in the South Carolina polls, occasionally uses a teleprompter and did after his victory Tuesday night.
Mark Vandriel, a 26-year-old graduate student in history, said he was at first leery of Huntsman because of his campaign slogan, “Country First.” “I don’t want someone who hates the rest of the world,” he said. But he said that Huntsman’s international experience and outlook appealed to him. “His talking about working with the world was really apt,” he said. “I was impressed by that.”
Huntsman, dressed in a boldly checked blue-and-white shirt, sleeves rolled up, and wearing cowboy boots, told about 200 people that he could provide the leadership the nation now lacked to revive its economy. “I want to be the president who launches a manufacturing renaissance,” he said.
And he said he would restore trust in government through such reforms as term limits for Congress, closing tax loopholes, ending the war in Afghanistan and refusing any more Wall Street bailouts.
“I’m an optimist,” he said, pausing to a smile, “or I wouldn’t be standing here in front of you.”
Huntsman was introduced by Henry McMaster, a former South Carolina attorney general, who said: “Jon Huntsman is a unique candidate. For one thing, all the flags on the outside of this building from around the world, he’s probably the only candidate that can tell you which country it belongs to.”
Pointing out his connections to South Carolina, Huntsman noted that he had given a commencement speech at the university and gently kidded McMaster, who has a rich Southern accent. “You know, I’ve been around Henry so long I don’t even need an interpreter,” he quipped.