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John Huntsman pushed through the crowd to address his supporters after a third place finish in the NH Primary on Tuesday. Huntsman is expected to announce Monday that he will drop out of the race and throw his support behind former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney.

Kate Harper photo
Tuesday, January 17, 2012

N.H. supporters disappointed with Huntsman exit

Richard Drisko was sitting down to breakfast and a newspaper early Monday when the phone rang, giving him a preview of the day’s top news.

Jon Huntsman was on the other end of the line.

“He just explained to me what he was thinking, his reasons (for dropping from the race),” said Drisko, a Republican state representative from Hollis and a Hunstman supporter.

Drisko said Huntsman thanked him for standing out in the cold on primary day holding signs in support of the campaign.

“I was pleased and flattered that he called,” Drisko said. “He’s a class act.”

Less than a week after Huntsman declared his third-place finish in the New Hampshire primary was his “ticket to ride” in the 2012 presidential election, that ride came to an end Monday when he withdrew from the presidential race.

“We entered this race just six months ago with the longest of long shots,” he told a crowd gathered in South Carolina on Monday. “My candidacy was staked on the simple principle of country first and driven by the refusal to pass down to the next generation a country that is less powerful, less prosperous.”

Huntsman first entered the race to some fanfare in July after he resigned his post as U.S. Ambassador to China under President Barack Obama. He struggled to gain traction from there.

Positioning himself as the moderate voice in a largely conservative field, Huntsman struggled to break single digits in most state polls until the final days before the New Hampshire primary, when he rose as high as third. He placed third with 17 percent of the vote, trailing Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, and Texas congressman Ron Paul.

Huntsman claimed the showing as a victory, telling supporters “We did it. Hello, South Carolina.”

But as the campaign moved south, local supporters and analysts feared the campaign’s efforts were too little too late.

“If we had a couple more weeks, he could have reached 20 percent, maybe even a little higher,” said Nancy Stiles, a Republican state senator from Hampton who headed up Huntsman’s Granite State campaign.

“He just ran out of time,” she said Monday. “It’s a disappointment to me because I do think he had the right message at the right time.”

Huntsman’s moderate voice and international experience appealed to many New Hampshire supporters who saw him as best positioned to bridge the partisan divide in Washington, D.C.

“He brings bipartisanship,” Kevin O’Neill, a supporter from Merrimack, said on primary night. “He can cross party lines.”

But on the whole, Huntsman failed to distinguish himself in a more conservative field, analysts said.

“They really believed that people would want to nominate a candidate who could get things done, and getting things done means working with the other side,” added Wayne L’Esperance, a professor of political science at New England College in Henniker. “It turns out that’s not what voters wanted. They wanted someone who could beat President Obama.”

After bowing out, Huntsman endorsed Romney, only further cementing the GOP frontrunner’s path to the Republican nomination, analysts agreed.

Romney, who has led most polls since the election started, already had distanced himself from the field with victories in Iowa and New Hampshire. A win in this weekend’s South Carolina primary would further secure his frontrunner status.

“If he wins South Carolina, that might be it,” L’Esperance said.

Having sided with Romney, Huntsman may have opened himself to a position in the administration should Romney win the Oval Office, supporters said.

“He’s got very good foreign policy experience,” Drisko said. “He would be very qualified for (Secretary of State).”

If Obama wins another term, Huntsman supporters could see him return to New Hampshire earlier than expected, maybe three years from now, in anticipation of the 2016 presidential election.

“He grew greatly as a candidate for national office while he was here. … I’d like to see him give it another go,” Stiles said.

“He might run again, but he’d still have challenges,” added Dean Spiliotes, a professor of political science at Southern New Hampshire University. “It’ll be a while before the (Republican) mood is really a good fit for him.”

Jake Berry can be reached at 594-6402 or