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.
Huntsman’s awkward embrace of Romney on Monday underscored the strained relationship between the two men.
With his wife, Mary Kaye, and four of their usually ebullient daughters looking on stoically, Huntsman announced the suspension of his campaign in a drab conference room here. Romney did not appear at his side, nor did the two men make plans to campaign together before Saturday’s South Carolina primary.
Shortly after the news of Huntsman’s withdrawal broke Sunday night, Huntsman called Romney. The two men spoke briefly and Huntsman agreed to record a phone message for Romney, according to a Huntsman aide.
In a nearly nine-minute speech here, Huntsman mentioned Romney just once, leaving little doubt that his endorsement was primarily in the name of party unity.
“I believe it is now time for our party to unite around the candidate best equipped to defeat Barack Obama,” Huntsman said. “Despite our differences and the space between us on some of the issues, I believe that candidate is Governor Mitt Romney.”
With his father, Jon Huntsman Sr., watching from the wings, Huntsman sternly called on the other candidates to cease the “onslaught of negative and personal attacks not worthy of the American people.”
Reporters preferred to revisit Huntsman’s attacks on Romney. As he left the stage, they shouted questions about him having called Romney “completely out of touch” and “unelectable because he lacks a core.”
Huntsman simply walked out the door. By early afternoon, an aide said, he was on an airplane with his family — trying, for a moment at least, to forget about his failed campaign.
Driven and gifted
Huntsman and Romney are both driven and gifted men with deep roots in their church’s moneyed establishment. Huntsman is a son of one of America’s most successful Mormon industrialists; Romney, of one of its most prominent politicians.
Their families are intertwined. Huntsman’s mother, Karen, roomed with Romney’s sister Jane at the University of Utah. Karen’s brother, Bruce, dated Romney’s older sister, Lynn. And Karen’s father, David Haight, a church apostle, was a childhood best friend of Romney’s father, George.