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Jon Huntsman seeks middle ground in GOP's 2012 race

Waving off his low poll numbers, GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman insisted Monday that he is a "mainstream conservative" who can win South Carolina's Republican primary.

On his fourth campaign visit to the state, Huntsman touted his experience as a businessman, two-term Utah governor and ambassador to China. “I’m going to remind people that we’ve been there and done that.”

Huntsman — a 51-year-old, motorcycle-riding, gun-owning father of seven — is positioning himself as a moderate who can win voters in South Carolina's first-in-the-South primary in February and, more importantly, independents in the general election.

Huntsman said his Republican presidential rivals are “all good people,” but added that comments about being able to reduce gas prices to $2 a gallon (by U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota) and criticism of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke (by Texas Gov. Rick Perry) are off base. “You’re moving into areas that probably don’t serve us well in terms of finding the mainstream conservative leadership this country is looking for.”

Monday, he also reiterated his stance that evolution was divinely ordained — “part of God’s plan” — a statement that sets him apart from Perry, who has questioned evolution.

South Carolina’s primary could make or break the campaigns of Republicans like Huntsman, who, to date, has gained little traction in South Carolina, particularly among tea party fans.

Like one of the GOP frontrunners, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Huntsman also is a Mormon, a faith that may be hard to sell among evangelical Republicans. Critics also fault Huntsman for his ties to Democratic President Barack Obama, under whom he was ambassador to China until earlier this year. Huntsman’s campaign also has been faulted for starting slowly.

“There’s a lot yet to play out in the months ahead,” Huntsman said. “People don’t coalesce around a candidate until the very end.”

Huntsman is gaining ground with some in the state’s Republican establishment. He has the backing of state Sen. John Courson, R-Richland; Henry McMaster, the state’s former attorney general; and the family of former Gov. Carroll Campbell. On Monday, state Attorney General Alan Wilson added his endorsement.

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