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Jon Huntsman, Having It Both Ways Til The End

In the final weeks of his misguided presidential campaign, Jon Huntsman Jr. centered his stump speech around the notion that the country not only faced a fiscal deficit but a "trust deficit" that has led us to "no longer trust our elected officials." The message had a certain Brooksian appeal to it, though it might have helped if it had been delivered by a less lugubrious and long-winded candidate.

But now that Huntsman's dropped out of the race and heartily endorsed Mitt Rommey, I can't help but ask: who are you to talk about trust, buster? If there was anything animating Huntsman's lackluster bid, it was his palpable dislike for his fellow Mormon ex-governor, Romney. Huntsman's campaign produced devastating Web ads lampooning Romney's flip-floppery; Huntsman showed genuine scorn in pushing back at Romney's anti-China demagoguery during debates; and his campaign's best moment of all came in his defense of his "country first" decision to become ambassador to China, in response to Romney's gratuitous attack on Huntsman's agreeing to work for President Obama. Huntsman's critiques of Romney extended to raising real doubts about his electability. In November, he said on "Meet the Press": “I think when you're on too many sides of the issues of the day, when you don't have that core, when there's that element of trust out there, I think that becomes a problem, and I think it makes you unelectable against Barack Obama.” And just last week, he jumped on Romney's "I like being able to fire people" comment by declaring that it "makes him unelectable." The DNC has helpfully collected some of Huntsman's anti-Romney nuggets into a nifty Web video.

Yet there he was today in South Carolina, endorsing Romney as the most electable Republican: “I believe it is now time for our party to unite around the candidate best equipped to defeat Barack Obama. Despite our differences and the space between us on some issues, I believe that candidate is Gov. Mitt Romney."

Granted, Huntsman's hardly the first politician to tuck in his tail and endorse a bitter rival -- John McCain did just that for Romney a couple weeks ago. But there's something especially jarring about Huntsman's quick reversal on Romney. And no, it doesn't exactly make one more likely to trust politicians and what they have to say. Quite the opposite, in fact. It was just the final example of Huntsman trying to have it both ways in this campaign -- he set himself up as the moderate who was willing to serve his country to work for the president of the opposite party, but then became increasingly outspoken in his criticism of that same president as it became clear that the GOP electorate demanded that. But then as soon as Romney chided him in the debate for his work for Obama, he switched back to "country first" mode. He was playing both sides of the line on Obama in a way that became pretty hard to watch, as he has now jumped across the line on Romney.*

Making matters worse was Huntsman's parting lament today about the campaign's negativism: “This race has degenerated into an onslaught of negative and personal attacks not worthy of the American people and not worthy off this critical time in American history,” he said. Leave aside that, again, some of the sharpest critiques of the Republican frontrunner came from Huntsman himself. If you ask me, it is precisely this rather pious and pinched tone that, as much as anything, kept Huntsman from catching fire even among the moderate-minded voters who were his target audience. Then again, that above-it-all shtick would be a perfect match for this crew, which, as Ken Vogel recently reported, is still desperate for a candidate on which to bestow its more than $20 million in secret donations. Surely Lady Lynn Forester de Rothschild, who only last week held a New York fundraiser for Huntsman, would be more than happy to generate "grass roots" enthusiasm for a third-party bid. Now that would be a ticket to ride.

*I've added to the fourth paragraph in the original post to expand on the "having it both ways" angle. I also changed the headline of the post to better reflect its main point.

Follow me on twitter @AlecMacGillis