COLUMBIA, S.C. — Jon Huntsman said Wednesday it's time for Republicans to stop attacking presidential front-runner Mitt Romney's role in a corporate-takeover firm, but he said there are plenty of government-related issues on which to criticize Romney.
Huntsman, a former Utah governor and ambassador to China, is hoping his third-place New Hampshire finish will provide enough momentum to keep his underdog presidential campaign chugging in the deep South. He urged South Carolina Republicans Wednesday to see him as a pragmatic problem-solver who disdains partisan posturing.
"Capitalism without failure isn't capitalism," Huntsman told the more than 100 students and a smattering of teachers in a hot, crowded faculty lounge.
Huntsman later told reporters that Republicans should temper their criticism of Romney's role at Bain Capital in the 1980s and '90s, when the private equity firm restructured dozens of companies. Jobs were created in some cases and lost in others. Presidential contenders Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry have seized on the lost jobs to paint Romney as a heartless profit-seeker who closed workplaces. Huntsman called the argument unfair.
"If you have creative destruction in capitalism, which has always been part of capitalism, it becomes a little disingenuous to take on Bain Capital," Huntsman told reporters. Instead, he said, Romney should be judged on his four years as Massachusetts governor.
"He didn't deliver any big bold economic proposals," Huntsman said. "I delivered the largest tax cut in the history of my state."
He said Romney raised taxes, required residents to obtain health insurance and had a far worse job-creation record than Huntsman had in Utah.
Huntsman got the third-place finish he needed in New Hampshire's primary Tuesday, but his showing was rather lackluster. Romney roughly doubled Huntsman's vote, and second-place finisher Ron Paul easily out-distanced him, too.
Huntsman essentially lived in New Hampshire since October. Now he has only a few days to introduce himself to South Carolina Republicans, who lean more conservative and evangelical than their New Hampshire counterparts.
Huntsman said expectations for him in South Carolina's Jan. 21 primary will be "very low. And I think I'll exceed that."
He stopped short of vowing to compete in Florida on Jan. 31 regardless of his South Carolina performance. "One state at a time," Huntsman said.
He portrayed himself to the students here as a can-do realist who knows how to streamline governments and simplify tax codes. He said he wouldn't "engage in a lot of hyper-charged, political rhetoric."
He may have to say and do a lot more.
"If the election were held tomorrow, he would be a footnote," said Rich Bolen, chairman of the Lexington County GOP, in an area that boasts the highest concentration of Republican voters in South Carolina.
The problem isn't that Huntsman is perceived as being too moderate for the conservative voters in the South's first primary. The problem is that voters don't know who he is.
"People don't know that he's moderate," said Bolen, who hasn't endorsed anyone in the race. "They don't know anything about him."
Huntsman registered support from just 1 percent of likely South Carolina primary voters in a CNN poll conducted last week.
The campaign isn't exactly starting from scratch.
He has four staffers on the ground in South Carolina, according to state director Joel Sawyer, a former state party executive director. And Huntsman has won endorsements from a handful of prominent local Republicans, including Alan Wilson, the state attorney general.
"We have a challenge and an opportunity in South Carolina in that a lot of voters will be taking their first look at Gov. Huntsman when he gets here," Sawyer said. "The advantage we have is the more people learn about Gov. Huntsman, the more they like. The more they learn about the rest of the folks, the less they like."
Huntsman was a bit more optimistic.
"Our name recognition is low, predictably, because you need a market-moving event for people to begin paying attention to you," he said on CNN before the New Hampshire polls closed. "New Hampshire will be a market-moving event for us. And as it moves downstream then into South Carolina, where we hope to find ourselves tomorrow, people will begin paying attention to the new order of the universe, which will be much different than we're thinking about it today."
But Huntsman needs money to capitalize on the New Hampshire finish. And fundraising has been a consistent challenge for much of the year.
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