Jon Huntsman Jr., trailing in the polls and after a third-place finish in New Hampshire, will drop out of the Republican presidential race today and endorse Mitt Romney, a campaign official said.
Huntsman, a former Utah governor who served as ambassador to China for President Barack Obama, struggled financially throughout the primary contest and was running last in an average of three statewide polls in South Carolina. He didn’t compete in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses to focus on the Jan. 10 contest in New Hampshire, staking his campaign on that state.
His decision to quit was made on the eve of a presidential debate in Myrtle Beach and on the same day that the Columbia-based newspaper, the State, endorsed him for South Carolina’s Jan. 21 primary.
The move also comes as Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are asking social conservatives to unite behind one of them as an alternative to Romney.
A campaign official, who spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of a formal announcement, confirmed Huntsman’s plans.
“With Governor Huntsman dropping out, we are one step closer to a bold Reagan conservative winning the GOP nomination,” R.C. Hammond, a Gingrich spokesman, said in a statement.
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’s last boss.
Romney won in New Hampshire, following his eight-vote margin of victory in Iowa over Santorum.
Today, Santorum accused Romney, as well as a super PAC supporting Romney and fellow rival Ron Paul 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 as long as they don’t coordinate their activities with any campaign.
Felons’ Voting Rights
Santorum called on Romney to ask the super PAC, called Restore Our Future, to take down an ad that portrays Santorum as soft on felons. Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, said that while he supported allowing certain felons to regain voting rights after completing their sentence, that policy is the law in 48 states including Massachusetts, where Romney was governor.
Santorum, who is courting conservative voters, said of Huntsman’s plan to withdraw from the race and support Romney: “Moderates are backing moderates. That’s sort of the bottom line.” He said it was “important that we eventually consolidate this race.”
Santorum spoke at a breakfast-time visit to the Lizard’s Thicket restaurant in South Carolina’s capital, Columbia. He said he intends to compete through Florida and in “Super Tuesday” states so long as he emerges from South Carolina in a “strong position.”
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.
In South Carolina, the Our Destiny committee has run only about $4,000 in commercials on network stations while his campaign hasn’t aired any ads, according to data from New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, a company that tracks advertising.
Huntsman was a no-show for a Jan. 13 forum in Duncan, South Carolina, with Gingrich and Santorum.