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Free Times: Huntsman Likely to Vie for ‘Reasonable’ Republican Vote in S.C.

Columbia Free Timesby Corey Hutchins

Jon Huntsman, the former Republican governor of Utah and one-time ambassador to China under President Barack Obama, has ramped up his presidential campaign in the critical early primary state of South Carolina.

His effort will likely follow a more moderate, establishment track than that of the handful of other contenders vying to tap the vein of the Palmetto State’s tea party faction — perhaps one of the most potent in the country.

“You’ve got all these tea-party types bundled up on the one side,” says retired Francis Marion University political scientist Neal Thigpen. “Perry and Bachmann and Herman Cain and Santorum, Ron Paul — even Gingrich — all that would come out to 65 to 70 percent of the votes that would be cast.”

That creates a track on the other side for candidates like Huntsman and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Thigpen says, who could position themselves as what he calls “reasonable” alternatives for more moderate Republican voters.

Huntsman already has the backing of former Attorney General Henry McMaster, a longtime establishment Republican who chaired the state party for years and ran an unsuccessful bid for governor last year.

And on Aug. 29, current Attorney General Alan Wilson threw his support behind Huntsman in the lobby of the State House alongside moderate Columbia GOP Sen. John Courson. Like the South Carolina electorate, Courson has accurately predicted the eventual GOP nominee for president since he endorsed Ronald Reagan in 1980.

“He’s going to be in South Carolina a lot,” Wilson said of Huntsman.

That could be in contrast to Romney, who made a big play early in the Palmetto State in 2008 only to come up in fourth place after heavy spending and hiring here.

This time around, many observers say his South Carolina effort is virtually nonexistent in comparison to the others.

Meanwhile, Huntsman, 51, and like Romney a Mormon, has recently announced his state finance team, one that showed highlights of John McCain’s 2008 campaign for president, and drew criticism from Democrats.

Among the team is John Rainey, a longtime Republican fundraiser and powerbroker who chaired the state’s Board of Economic Advisors under former Gov. Mark Sanford. Democratic operative Tyler Jones of SC Forward Progress pointed out that Rainey has been perhaps the strongest Republican critic in the state of Gov. Nikki Haley. (He’s called her the most corrupt person to occupy the governor’s office since Reconstruction.)

Huntsman has the consulting powerhouse of the Columbia-based Richard Quinn and Associates running his Palmetto State bid.

Quinn met with Huntsman, then governor of Utah, in mid-February of 2009 and introduced him to a room of about 30 influential South Carolina Republicans.

“We were all just bowled over by the guy,” Quinn said. “He’s good looking, has a great sense of humor and he did a great job with Utah.” He added that Huntsman is “not programmed.”

But Huntsman’s moderate-establishment backing and less controversial rhetoric — “To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy,” he posted to his Twitter account Aug. 18 — has exposed him to different kinds of Democratic attacks than those typically used to bludgeon his rivals.

South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian has taken a particular pleasure in pointing out Huntsman’s ties to Obama.

“Here’s a guy who had his lips firmly planted on the president’s butt three months ago, and now is speaking ill of him out of those same lips,” Harpootlian said during a conference call with reporters last month. “Can you trust a guy who turns this quickly? He is somebody who apparently will say whatever it takes to get elected.”