MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (AP) — Jon Huntsman abandoned his once-promising campaign for the Republican presidential nomination on Monday and endorsed Mitt Romney as the man "best equipped to defeat Barack Obama'" in the fall.
The former Utah governor coupled his announcement with an appeal to the remaining contenders to stop attacking one another in television commercials. "At its core, the Republican Party is a party of ideas, but the current toxic form of our political discourse does not help our cause," he said.
He noted that he and Romney have had their differences, and he did not respond to questions when asked if he still believes — as he said while campaigning for last week's New Hampshire primary — that the former Massachusetts governor is out of touch and unelectable.
Huntsman said he was suspending his candidacy, but his endorsement made it clear that was a euphemism. He dropped out less than a week after finishing third in New Hampshire, the state where he had staked his candidacy. While he has campaigned for nearly a week in South Carolina, he lacked the funds for television commercials or other essentials of a modern campaign.
Given Huntsman's decision to back Romney, his departure seemed unlikely to clarify the overriding question of the Republican campaign, whether conservative voters could or would unify behind either Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich or Rick Perry to create a strong conservative challenger to Romney.
Huntsman's resume had suggested he could be a major contender for the Republican presidential nomination: businessman, diplomat, governor, veteran of four presidential administrations, an expert on China and foreign trade. But the former ambassador to China in the Obama administration found a poor reception for his brand of moderate civility that he had hoped would draw support from independents, as well as party moderates.
Huntsman was almost invisible in a race often dominated by Romney, a fellow Mormon. One reason was timing. For months, Romney and other declared or expected-to-declare candidates drew media attention and wooed voters in early primary states.
Huntsman, however, was half a world away, serving as ambassador to China until he resigned in late April. Nearly two more months would pass before his kickoff speech on June 22 in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. The former Utah governor had already acknowledged that expectations for him in South Carolina's primary this week will be "very low." Word of the Huntsman withdrawal came on the same day that The State, South Carolina's largest newspaper, endorsed him for president.
Although Huntsman was viewed as having little chance of finishing strong in South Carolina, his endorsement of Romney could give the former Massachusetts governor, who leads in state polls, even more of the look of inevitability.
The move comes as pressure has been increasing on Texas Gov. Rick Perry to leave the race to allow South Carolina's influential social conservatives to unify behind either former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Santorum worked over the weekend at consolidating conservatives, trying to parlay into support in South Carolina the decision Saturday by an influential group of national Christian conservatives to back him.
"I think it's important that we eventually consolidate this race," Santorum told reporters Monday at a news conference in Columbia. He stopped short of urging Perry, who has shown little traction in South Carolina, to quit the race.
"That's up to the candidates themselves to decide," Santorum said.
To stand out in a crowded field, Huntsman positioned himself as a tax-cutting, budget-balancing chief executive and former business executive who could rise above partisan politics. That would prove to be a hard sell to the conservatives dominating the early voting contests, especially in an election cycle marked by bitter divisions between Republicans and Democrats and a boiling antipathy for Obama.