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Jon Huntsman to pull out of presidential race, back Romney

Published January 15, 2012 7:53 pm

GOP nomination • The former Utah governor is expected to throw support behind Mitt Romney.
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Washington • Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman declared that his third-place finish in the New Hampshire presidential primary was a "ticket to ride." But apparently, it was a short trip.

Huntsman on Monday will pull out of the presidential race and endorse rival Mitt Romney, Huntsman advisers confirmed Sunday night.

Huntsman, who has struggled in his White House campaign and faced long odds in the upcoming South Carolina primary, will make a surprise announcement in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Monday morning that he is dropping out of the race, sources said.

A Huntsman adviser says the former governor will argue that he made a great showing in the New Hampshire race but that Romney is the Republican who can move the party forward.

"He is proud of the race he ran, but he is not going to stand in the way of the man who can beat Barack Obama," the source said on condition of anonymity because the announcement was not yet official.

Huntsman, who had invested all of his campaign resources into the New Hampshire primary only to walk away in third place, had played up his momentum heading into the South Carolina primary. However, after finding himself in single digits in the polls, Huntsman decided to call it quits.

The decision comes the same day the former Utah governor won a key endorsement from South Carolina's largest newspaper, The State, which said Huntsman was the candidate who could unite America.

"Mr. Huntsman is a true conservative, with a record and platform of bold economic reform straight out of the free-market bible," the newspaper opined, "but he's a realist, whose goal is likewise to get things done."

Another Huntsman senior adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the forthcoming announcement, said he was saddened by the news because he feels Huntsman is best candidate to be president.

"Jon Huntsman should win," the adviser said. "He had the best qualifications, the best vision. He would have been our best candidate. It just didn't work out."

Huntsman resigned as the U.S. ambassador to China in March and began flirting with the idea of a White House bid. He officially jumped in the race in June and was met with a slew of news media attention that ultimately didn't equate to voter enthusiasm.

Obama's White House had feared — and tried to damage — Huntsman's bid, with senior administrative officials, and even the president himself, joking that they would help the candidate, knowing that such support would hurt him with the Republican base.

The Huntsman campaign had planned on a three-state strategy, focusing on early primaries in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida. But Huntsman winnowed the plan down after his polling numbers remained low and fundraising dollars didn't materialize.

With 17 percent of the vote in New Hampshire, Huntsman took the stage in a Manchester bar Tuesday night surrounded by his family to declare that he would forge on in his bid. It was immediately unclear Sunday night why he decided against continuing the race.

From the start, Huntsman had charted a different course than many of his Republican contenders for the White House, even saying in his campaign announcement that he respected President Barack Obama. Huntsman also did not distance himself from difficult positions he held on climate change and civil unions that could have cost him votes with the Republican electorate.

Huntsman, who shares his Mormon faith and an ancestor with Romney, had sparred on many occasions with the former Massachusetts governor. Last weekend, the two tussled in debates with Romney calling out Huntsman for serving as the ambassador to China under the Democratic president and Huntsman railing against his distant cousin for raising money for politicians while Huntsman was serving his country as ambassador.

Unveiling a new "Country First" slogan, Huntsman headed to South Carolina with his campaign, touting a ground game that could upend several polls and put the candidate within the margin of error. On Sunday night, one of his advisers said Huntsman was putting that message to the ultimate test, withdrawing from the race because continuing could hurt the party's chances in the general election.

"He takes this idea of country first seriously. He decided, why delay the inevitable?" the adviser said, noting that if Huntsman could be back in a future White House bid. "He has so much to offer. He's ahead of his time. I think he speaks to the party's future."