Longstanding Tension Makes Huntsmans Romney Endorsement Seem Even Stranger

Many were surprised by former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman’s quick endorsement of rival Mitt Romney when announcing his departure from the 2012 Republican presidential primary. Huntsman had been one of Romney’s biggest critics on the campaign trail, and recently said that the campaign front runner was“making himself completely unelectable.” As Huntsman’s campaign is in postmortem, examination of the endorsement makes the choice seem even stranger as more details point to a longstanding tension between the two Republican candidates.

At face value Huntsman’s endorsement of Romney seems obvious–both are former governors with ties to the business community, both are perceived as moderate by pundits in comparison to the current philosophical stance of the party, both are Mormon. Their supporters are similar, as AP reports that polls show Romney was most often the second choice of Huntsman backers than any other candidate.

However, the Huntsman campaign from the onset produced more attacks against Romney’s “core” and record than it did any other candidate, and The Washington Post reports that there has been a rivalry and tension between the two for sometime:

“Six years ago, after a private dinner with their wives, Romney came away believing he would have Huntsman’s backing for president, according to a Romney adviser. Romney was so sure of the then-Utah governor’s support that he asked him to write position papers on China, a country Huntsman knows well. Romney even shared internal strategy with him.

Then, in July 2006, Romney found out from news reports that Huntsman had officially endorsed Sen. John McCain (Ariz.). A source close to the Huntsman family countered said that any depiction of Huntsman misleading Romney was “’fabricated.’ Nevertheless, Romney saw the endorsement as a stinging, personal rebuke — one that further alienated the governors, who did not know each other well but whose families did.

For years, the scions of two of the country’s most prominent Mormon families — they are, in fact, distant cousins — had waged an uneasy and at times bitter rivalry that would only intensify once the prize became the White House.”

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“The ambitions of Romney, 64, and Huntsman, 51, first collided in 1999, when the scandal-plagued Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City sought a new leader. Both men pursued the job aggressively, seeing it as a springboard to a political career. After much behind-the-scenes politicking, Romney won the job.

It was a stinging defeat for the Huntsmans, considering how hard the family patriarch, Jon Sr., had lobbied for his son.

‘It was a painful, miserable loss for the Huntsman family,’ said one family confidant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. ‘Two powerful juggernauts competed over the most important thing in the home state of their religion. One won and one lost. And one not only won the prize, but elevated himself on a national platform by running a successful Olympics.’

In the 2008 campaign, the elder Huntsman dutifully raised money for Romney. His son’s decision to side with McCain prompted angry phone calls from Romney, Karen Huntsman said in an interview last year.”

With years of baggage, bitter rivalry and public comparison, it’s fair to say that the call Romney received from Huntsman Sunday night may have been much more awkward than the ordinary concession call between political opponents. POLITICO reports that Romney did not ask for Huntsman’s endorsement, or offer anything to get. Reid Epstein and Juana Summers describe the five minute conversation:

“They spoke about ‘the state of the race’ and how Huntsman could help Romney with certain moderate voting blocs in South Carolina, Huntsman spokesman Tim Miller said Monday. Huntsman offered to record a robo-call on his behalf.

Huntsman did not ask Romney to help retire his campaign debt or take on any of Huntsman’s now-unemployed staff, Miller said, common practices when primary candidates step aside and back an opponent — and as Romney did for former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Romney didn’t offer to.

There was hope in Huntsman’s campaign — categorized even by Huntsman sources as ‘wishful thinking’ — that Romney would offer to help. High-level discussions did take place between the two candidates’ campaign managers about Romney taking on Huntsman staffers, with Huntsman campaign manager Matt David sending Romney chief Matt Rhodes resumes of staffers, a high-level Huntsman campaign source said.

But Huntsman didn’t make an explicit request to Romney. Had he done so, the answer, with Romney knowing more candidates are likely to come asking the same thing, would have been no.

‘Bad time to set that precedent with others out there that might go soon and want the same thing,’ said one Romney campaign source.

But the real obstacle, another Romney source explained: ‘You help your friends,’ which the two are most certainly not.”

Putting a wet blanket over the already chilly endorsement, POLITICO writes that Romney wasn’t invited to Huntsman’s dropping-out speech Monday, and didn’t come even though he was also in Myrtle Beach in the morning and had no public schedule. The Hill writes on the Romney campaign’s passive reaction to the endorsement:

“The former Massachusetts governor did not appear with Huntsman at Monday’s announcement and waited until after Huntsman stopped speaking to issue a terse statement: “I salute Jon Huntsman and his wife, Mary Kaye. Jon ran a spirited campaign based on unity, not division, and love of country. I appreciate his friendship and support.”

In contrast, when Tim Pawlenty endorsed Romney in September, the campaign blasted out a two-paragraph release, calling the former Minnesota governor a ‘trusted adviser’ and naming him a co-chairman of Romney’s campaign.”

Whether Huntsman will come around to stump for his opponent turned presidential choice, as Pawlenty did, seems unlikely.

After his two sentence endorsement of Romney Wednesday, Huntsman ignored questions from reporters and headed straight for the door, on a plane home with his family by early afternoon.