SALT LAKE CITY — Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. suspended his presidential campaign Monday morning and threw his support behind fellow Republican Mitt Romney, saying the race has "degenerated into an onslaught of negative and personal attacks."
With his wife, daughters and father by his side, Huntsman told reporters in Myrtle Beach that the election has taken a "toxic form" that was not helping the Republican effort to retake the White House.
"Today I call on each campaign to cease attacking each other and instead talk directly to the American people about how our conservative ideas will create jobs, reduce our nation's debt, stabilize energy prices and provide a better future," he said.
Huntsman also took aim at the Democratic leader who named him the U.S. ambassador to China, President Barack Obama for engaging in "class warfare for political gain" that has left the nation more divided and corroded trust.
It's time, Huntsman said, for the GOP to unite behind the candidate "best equipped to defeat Barack Obama. Despite our differences and the space between us on some of the issues, I believe that candidate is Mitt Romney."
Huntsman said he and his family leave the race with "an even greater appreciation for American democracy" and would continue to work toward the ideas he advanced in his campaign, including bringing home American troops from Afghanistan.
He appeared somewhat somber in a suit rather than the leather flight jacket he'd been wearing on the campaign trail. After his brief speech, he took no questions and was expected to leave South Carolina after meeting with his campaign staff and volunteers.
Had Huntsman stayed in the race, he would have participated tonight in yet another GOP candidate debate, this one in Myrtle Beach. During the last debate in New Hampshire, sparks flew between Huntsman and Romney.
The pair spared over Romney's suggestion that Huntsman should not have agreed to serve as U.S. ambassador to China under a Democrat, President Barack Obama. Huntsman said he would always put his country first, turning that statement into a rallying cry in the final days of his campaign.
In a statement, Romney said, “I salute Jon Huntsman and his wife Mary Kaye. Jon ran a spirited campaign based on unity not division, and love of country. I appreciate his friendship and support.”
Huntsman and Romney spoke by phone Sunday night about what Huntsman could do to help his former rival, according to Politico. The online political news source also reported Huntsman agreed to do a "robocall," an auto-dialed prerecorded message, for Romney for specific voters in South Carolina.
His decision to drop out came as a surprise to Huntsman's top adviser in New Hampshire, Peter Spaulding, who learned the news in a telephone call from a reporter. Huntsman had focused all of his resources on New Hampshire's Jan. 10 primary, but finished third.
"I expected him to do better, but you know, it is as it is. He's still a young man and has a lot of future ahead of him," Spaulding said. He said he had no regrets about working for a candidate no longer in contention. "I would do it again in a heartbeat."
News of Huntsman's withdrawal came the same day as he received the endorsement of South Carolina's largest newspaper and less than a week before that's state's primary election on Jan. 21.
But his campaign was reportedly out of money, unable to buy television time or pay for direct mailings to reach voters in South Carolina, the first southern state on the primary calendar.
Huntsman had poured at least $2 million of his own money into the race and his father, Jon Huntsman Sr., was a significant contributor to a so-called "super PAC" that funded much of the campaign's advertising.
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