Rather a few months ago I wrote in this space that Jon Huntsman was "the kind of Republican Mike Beebe would like."

Rather a few months ago I wrote in this space that Jon Huntsman was “the kind of Republican Mike Beebe would like.”

Huntsman, I noted, had won universal acclaim for his stewardship as governor of Utah (he and Mr. Beebe got to know one another as fellow chiefs executive), demonstrating solid judgment and fiscal conservatism, and a willingness to compromise with legislators, Democrats included. His reward was a second term by 78 percent, 14 points better than Mr. Beebe in his own reprise gubernatorial election. Huntsman had run the family’s business empire. He served in the Reagan White House and was an ambassador (the youngest, at 32, in a century) and U.S. trade representative for Bush I. Bush II returned him to the global trade office.

A couple days later I was seated next to Mr. Beebe at some function when he leaned over and said he’d read the piece. “You’re right,” he whispered. “I like him. I like him a lot.” Mr. Beebe’s admiration for him hardly doomed Huntsman as a Republican presidential candidate, but the basis for his esteem certainly did. A rationalist prepared to trust science on global warming and evolution; a realist on foreign affairs, more anxious to deploy American diplomats than armored divisions; a pragmatist on budgets and fiscal policy, disdainful of easy solutions to debt and deficit — Huntsman’s refusal to join his fellow Republican candidates in throwing carrion to the crocodiles guaranteed he could not survive the carnivorous GOP primaries.

Huntsman’s third place finish in the New Hampshire primary was, he announced that night, sufficient to justify his going forward into South Carolina. No one, perhaps save Huntsman himself, could see whatever it was the candidate could see.

How could an outspoken free trader, who did not hesitate to publicly warn his rivals against the trade war they threatened against China, expect to gain traction in a state where a once vibrant textile industry had been ravaged by overseas competition?

By what stretch could a man who supported civil unions for gay and lesbian couples hope to win a share of Republican support in a Palmetto State with a platform specifically opposing civil unions or any “promotion” of homosexuality? Where religious conservatives, plainly suspicious of his Mormon faith, play a prominent role in party affairs?

Huntsman was a fiscal conservative who thought the Pentagon budget could stand some scrutiny and, plainly, some cuts. South Carolina, home to eight major military installations, has historically been dependant on defense spending. To top it off, Huntsman was a Republican who refused to sign “pledges” against taxes and for marital fidelity; the former foolish, he said, the latter insulting, he hinted.

Too, Huntsman’s attack on Mitt Romney for the relish the front-runner supposedly expressed in reducing payrolls was a kidney punch, a cheap shot based on a quote taken out of context, and decidedly out of character for Huntsman, who began his campaign with appeals to civility and mutual respect — tenets of Mr. Beebe’s professed canon. One would like to believe that in a saner, stabler time, in a more pragmatic and less ideological Republican Party, Huntsman would be setting the pace for the GOP field not only intellectually but politically.

But the rank-and-file appear to be less enthusiastic for Romney than simply resigned — much as Huntsman, who endorsed him, leaving the contest with the most cogent comment since it began: “This race has degenerated into an onslaught of negative and personal attacks not worthy of the American people and not worthy of this critical time in our nation’s history.”

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Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff.