Republicans point toward 1st of 2 SC debates

By David Espo

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Jan. 16 2012 12:51 p.m. MST

Republican presidential candidate, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman announces his withdrawal from the race, Monday, Jan. 16, 2012, in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

David Goldman, Associated Press

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — The Republican presidential contenders are campaigning their way into the first of two debates before a decisive weekend vote in South Carolina.

Hours before the candidates were to gather Monday night in Myrtle Beach, S.C., for the Fox News Channel-sponsored forum, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman announced he was withdrawing from the race and endorsing front-runner Mitt Romney.

Huntsman said Romney, despite their differences, is the candidate "best equipped" to defeat President Barack Obama in the fall.

Romney savored the endorsement while his four pursuers struggled to emerge as the leading conservative candidate alternative to him. That dynamic was likely to play out on the debate stage, as well.

A second debate is scheduled for Thursday in Charleston, S.C.

South Carolina holds its Republican presidential primary on Saturday.

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