Jon Huntsman Ends Presidential Campaign, Backs Romney

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Matt Rourke / AP

Republican presidential candidate former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman descends stairs during an event at Virginia's on King restaurant, Jan. 15, 2012, in Charleston, S.C.

Jon Huntsman bowed out of the Republican presidential race on Monday morning and endorsed Mitt Romney, winnowing the GOP field and giving Romney a boost just five days before South Carolina’s pivotal Jan. 21 primary.

“Today I am suspending my campaign,” Huntsman said in Myrtle Beach. “I believe it is now time for our party to unite behind candidate who can best beat Obama.”

After failing to break through in New Hampshire, where he placed third less than a week ago, Huntsman’s days in the race were numbered. Though he treated the disappointing result as a triumph — confetti showered the stage at his New Hampshire send-off Tuesday night — and journeyed south vowing to fight on, Huntsman’s campaign was running on fumes, lacking the money and momentum needed to contest a protracted primary fight. While his exit was anticipated, the timing was a surprise. Earlier Sunday, he earned the endorsement of South Carolina’s The State newspaper.

Advisers cast Huntsman’s decision as a way to help Romney wrap up the nomination and turn his sights on Barack Obama. The former Massachusetts governor, fresh off wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, is scrambling to fend off attacks from a slew of conservative challengers who see Saturday’s Palmetto State primary as their last, best hope to stall Romney’s push for the nomination. Huntsman’s slim support base — after notching 17% in New Hampshire, he has polled in the low single-digits in South Carolina — is most likely to throw its support to Romney.

Whether Romney’s camp will embrace the endorsement is another matter. After pledging to make comity a hallmark of his campaign, Huntsman sharpened his tone toward the Republican front-runner as his own fortunes sputtered. In recent weeks, he bitterly hammered Romney for being a political “chameleon” who lacked core convictions and “likes firing people.” On the eve of the New Hampshire primary, Huntsman suggested Romney’s remarks about sacking insurance companies, taken against the backdrop of his record at Bain Capital, rendered him “completely unelectable.” Now Huntsman is calling Romney the GOP’s best hope to oust Obama in the fall.

Huntsman’s exit caps a campaign that sputtered badly after a splashy beginning. A popular governor with impeccable foreign-policy credentials, Huntsman’s plunge into the presidential race last summer was met with media fanfare and whispers among Democrats that his moderate tone and knack for knitting together bipartisan coalitions could make him a tough general-election match-up. His campaign kickoff in June painted him as a conservative in the Reagan mold. But he struggled from the start to find a foothold in a crowded GOP field.

As Utah governor, Huntsman compiled a conservative record on fiscal issues, abortion and gun rights while presiding over a surge in job growth. Instead of heralding these credentials, Huntsman often preferred the language of moderation. He decried partisan bickering, made a show of bucking GOP doctrine on issues like global warming and refused to criticize Obama, under whom he served as Ambassador to China. With primary voters hungry for red meat, he served up a steady diet of civility and compromise. The dish wasn’t popular.

At debates Huntsman was by turns wooden and jocular, muddying his strong grip of foreign policy and conservative tax plan with an off-kilter joke or a Mandarin phrase. Behind the scenes, his campaign was racked by infighting early on. In one of the race’s richest ironies, Huntsman — the wealthy son of a billionaire chemical manufacturer — was hamstrung all along by a lack of money, struggling to raise enough cash to go up on the air until it was too late. In the end, his super PAC spent some $2 million to run spots in New Hampshire, more than any other campaign.

It wasn’t enough. As a relative moderate running in a bull market for conservatives, Huntsman may have been doomed from the start, but he inflicted further damage by failing to zero in on a message. A few days before the New Hampshire primary, during a campaign stop in Concord, Huntsman was asked whether the experience of running had disabused him of the notion that there was still a place in politics for a centrist like himself. Huntsman, whose aides labored daily to cast him as a conservative alternative to Romney, didn’t bother to dog whistle. “Some people like to call it centrist or something else. I do what I do based on a view of this country and its future,” he said. “I’m a realist, at the end of the day. I don’t like to spend a lot of time posturing…I’m just going to be who I am.” Too many voters were left unsure what that was.

Updated, 11:31 a.m. Monday