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.
He also trailed in the polls in South Carolina, a state seldom friendly to candidates who stray from strict conservative values. Religion, too, is a factor, with evangelical voters rejecting Mormons as fellow Christians.
From the start, Huntsman's campaign struggled to gain support. He didn't get into the race until last June, shortly after stepping down as ambassador to China, a post he resigned as governor to take in 2009.
His campaign was widely viewed as having a better chance in 2016, because the 51-year-old didn't have the time to become well known nationally and was far behind other contenders in both organization and fundraising.
Huntsman chose to skip the first test of presidential candidates, the Iowa caucuses, and finished behind Romney and Texas Rep. Ron Paul in New Hampshire, despite last-minute momentum that had him hoping for second place.
Many believed he would not continue his campaign, but Huntsman headed to South Carolina, telling supporting his finish in New Hampshire was a "ticket to ride."
"I'm surprised but not shocked," said Utah advertising executive Tom Love, a longtime friend of Huntsman's. "It's got to be financial."
Love said Huntsman displayed "class" for his willingness to endorse Romney.
"For him to say it's not there, and I'm done and I'll support Mitt, given the bitterness between the two campaigns for so long, I have to take my hat off to him," Love said.
Huntsman routinely cited his accomplishments as Utah's governor on the campaign trail, especially his effort to move the state toward a single, flat income tax rate. He also continued to support civil unions for gay couples and the need to address climate change, despite the unpopularity of those positions with conservatives.
His departure leaves five candidates in the running for the GOP nomination — Romney, Paul, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Romney continues to be the front-runner in the race, but his campaign had no comment on Huntsman's leaving the race. Gingrich issued a statement, "with Gov. Huntsman dropping out, we are one step closer to a bold Reagan conservative winning the GOP nomination."
Lew Cramer, head of the Utah World Trade Center and another longtime friend of Huntsman's, said his dropping out of the race "absolutely" makes it easier on Utahns who were torn between backing Romney and Huntsman.
Cramer, who'd supported Huntsman but had sons campaigning for Romney, said he'd already been contacted by friends in the Romney camp Sunday night. "I just have to write some more checks," he said.
Romney, who calls Massachusetts home and served as that state's governor, is seen as a "favorite son" candidate in Utah. In 2008, he won an unprecedented 90 percent of the vote in the Utah GOP presidential primary over the party's eventual nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain.
Huntsman trailed Romney repeatedly in polls of likely 2012 Utah Republican primary voters. Cramer said it was a "smart move" for Huntsman to endorse Romney. "I hope this is enough to put Mitt over the top," he said.
Cramer said he expects Huntsman to hit the campaign trail for Romney, "if he's asked."
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