MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. – Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman ended his bid for the presidency today and threw his support behind frontrunner Mitt Romney, just hours before the first South Carolina debate is scheduled to take place here and five days before the first southern primaries.
“Today I am suspending my campaign for the presidency. I believe it is now time for our party to unite around the candidate best equipped to defeat Barack Obama. Despite our differences and space between us on some of the issues, I believe that candidate is Mitt Romney,” said Huntsman, flanked by four daughters and his wife in a small conference room packed with media. He hugged his wife after the short speech and left without taking questions.
Huntsman’s father, who had helped finance his campaign, was also in the audience, along with other supporters.
“For our nation to move forward together with new leadership and unity, the Republican party must first unite. We entered this race just six months ago with the longest of long shots. My candidacy was staked on the simple principle of country first,” Huntsman said earlier.
“Today our campaign for the presidency ends but our campaign to build a better and more trustworthy America continues,” he said, vowing to continue to fight for a flatter, simpler tax code, an energy policy that ends the “scourge of our addiction to foreign oil,” congressional term limits, education reform, financial reform that breaks up “too big to fail banks,” a return of troops from Afghanistan and a commitment to “stop nation building overseas and start rebuilding our own nation.”
Huntsman also criticized the GOP field for the barrage of attack ads and negative campaigning.
“This race has degenerated into an onslaught of negative and personal attacks not worthy of the American people and not worthy of this critical time in our nation’s history,” he said.
Instead, the country desperately needs to begin a journey that will allow it to tackle its financial and trust deficit, he said.
“The current toxic forum of our political discourse does not help our cause, and is just one of the many reasons why the American people have lost trust in their elected leaders,” Huntsman said.
In accepting Huntsman’s endorsement, 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, who staked the future of his campaign on a strong New Hampshire finish, placed a disappointing third in the Granite State’s first-in-the-nation primary last week, trailing far behind Romney and Texas congressman Ron Paul. While he cast the finish in a positive light – saying it was his “ticket to ride” – his campaign has been struggling financially.
The former ambassador to China under President Obama had cast himself as a moderate Romney alternative who stood above the partisan political fray. While that may have appealed to independents in New Hampshire, Huntsman never managed to strike a chord with South Carolina’s deeply conservative and religious voters and trailed in the polls.
A giant sand sculpture of Huntsman’s face sandwiched among the likenesses of fellow GOP contenders Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum and Paul greets visitors to the Myrtle Beach Convention Center, the scene of tonight’s debate.