Jon Huntsman: Ticket to nowhere

Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman 15 January 2012 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Jon Huntsman has polled at about 1% nationally despite attracting about 17% of the new Hampshire vote

Jon Huntsman's withdrawal from the race is another mini-boost for Mitt Romney.

Huntsman's fate was sealed when he came third in New Hampshire. He said it was "a ticket to ride". But the bus has run out of fuel and puttered to a halt.

As Politico points out, every vote Huntsman took in South Carolina would have been a vote less for Romney. But he wouldn't have taken many anyway.

While his political demise won't have much impact on the Republican race, it tells you a lot about the state of American politics.

About three years ago when I was pursuing my own nomination battle - for this job - I spent a lot of time thinking about who the Republican challenger would be. Jon Huntsman was top of my list.

Peering into American tea leaves was the main job of a diplomat friend. Huntsman topped her list too.

I am sure President Barack Obama made Huntsman ambassador to China on his merit. But it must have crossed his mind that it would also remove a serious rival (no-one thought he would quit and come back).

So what happened since those early days of the Obama administration, to turn a front-runner into a no-hoper?

Three words: the Tea Party.

They may be pretty quiet these days, but that is not because they have lost and gone away. It is because they have won.

Republican activists as a whole now accept that their party lost its way and stopped being truly conservative. They believe that their country is in danger and only a radical reduction in the size of government, and so spending and taxation, can save it.

Many want a fire-breathing commander-in-chief who promotes the idea that America is an exceptional force for good in the world and that intervention is nearly always positive.

The former Utah governor is pretty conservative by most standards, but he is too civil to strike a chord, too thoughtful to adopt what he clearly regards as simplistic solutions.

Talking to people, I have found he still has a huge amount of support - among Democrats.

He alienated the base further, suggesting that the Republican party couldn't "run against science" in regards to climate change and evolution.

Despite his fluency in Mandarin, his obvious intelligence and his bubbly secret weapon - his daughters who tweeted as Jon2012girls - he campaigned from the centre ground in a race where all the action is on the right.

He had a ticket to ride in an America where Republicans would rather travel by car, in a different direction.