Jon Huntsman Jr. dropped out of the Republican presidential race and endorsed Mitt Romney, saying the party should unite behind the former Massachusetts governor as the candidate “best equipped” to defeat President Barack Obama.
“Today I am suspending my campaign for the presidency,” Huntsman said at a news conference in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. After a divisive Republican campaign, he said the party should coalesce behind the person with the best chance to oust Obama, adding, “Despite our differences and the space between us on some of the issues, I believe that candidate is Governor Mitt Romney.”
Newt Gingrich, who was running second behind Romney in state polls ahead of the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary, said Huntsman’s exit means “now we’re in the real game.” Gingrich spoke from Myrtle Beach, where Republicans are gathering for tonight’s televised presidential debate.
Huntsman used his last moments in the campaign spotlight to criticize what he called the “toxic” discourse of the Republican primary contest.
“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,” Huntsman said. He called on the Republican candidates “to cease attacking each other” and focus on how conservative principles could improve voters’ lives.
Huntsman, a former Utah governor who was ambassador to China for Obama, trailed in the polls and finished third in the New Hampshire primary after staking his campaign on that state. He struggled financially and was last in an average of three statewide polls in South Carolina.
Romney, the New Hampshire primary winner, didn’t attend Huntsman’s announcement though he issued a statement saluting him.
“Jon ran a spirited campaign based on unity not division, and love of country,” Romney said. “I appreciate his friendship and support.”
Republican rivals Gingrich and Rick Santorum are asking social conservatives to unite behind one of them as an alternative to Romney.
Gingrich said today that Santorum’s majority showing of support from a group of evangelicals who met in Texas over the weekend will have “a very marginal impact.” He said with a vote for Santorum, “you’re functionally voting for Governor Romney to be the nominee because he’s not going to beat him.”
Santorum said today the evangelicals’ support was giving him a boost.
According to the website Real Clear Politics, in an average of three South Carolina polls conducted Jan. 11-15, before any bump from the evangelical leaders’ endorsement, Romney led with 29.7 percent of the Republican vote, while Gingrich had 22 percent, Ron Paul had 15 percent and Santorum was in fourth place, with 14.3 percent.
Regarding Huntsman’s decision to support Romney, Santorum said today, “Moderates are backing moderates. That’s sort of the bottom line.” Speaking at the Lizard’s Thicket restaurant in South Carolina’s capital, Columbia, he said it was “important that we eventually consolidate this race.”
Santorum also accused Romney, Paul and a super PAC supporting Romney of running “smear campaigns” and “smarmy robo-calls” against him in South Carolina. Political action committees known as super PACs can take unlimited donations from corporations and individuals if they don’t coordinate their activities with any campaign.
Huntsman left his withdrawal announcement without answering questions from reporters. He ignored several questions about his past critiques of Romney and whether he still considers him “unelectable,” as Huntsman said in a Nov. 6 interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Huntsman attacked Romney during that interview for changing his positions on issues.
“There’s a question whether he’s running for the White House or the Waffle House,” Huntsman said during the interview. “I don’t know if he can go on to beat President Obama, given his record.”
Huntsman’s campaign had also circulated several anti-Romney Web videos recounting his reversals on such issues as health care mandates and abortion rights -- which the former Massachusetts governor once supported and now opposes. One of the videos called Romney a “perfectly lubricated weathervane.” The films had been removed from Huntsman’s website in advance of today’s endorsement.
More Centrist Message
Huntsman’s candidacy was framed around a more centrist message than his opponents as he sought to attract independent voters and to compete in swing states in a general election. While opposed to gay marriage, Huntsman does support civil unions between people of the same sex.
His message proved to be out of sync with a party base animated by calls for cutting taxes and government spending and in search of a candidate capable of building a campaign machine and message strong enough to defeat Obama.
Huntsman reported raising $4.5 million -- including a $2.25 million personal loan to his campaign -- and having $3 million in debts as of Sept. 30, the last records available.
He ran no television advertisements before the Iowa caucuses, saving all his fire for New Hampshire. In the Granite State, Huntsman’s campaign ran only about $20,000 in commercials on network stations while an outside group supporting his candidacy, Our Destiny PAC, spent $1.2 million on commercials.
The Our Destiny PAC was largely funded by his father, Jon Huntsman Sr., chairman of petrochemical company Huntsman Corp., who attended his son’s withdrawal announcement.