Jon Huntsman exited the presidential race Monday with an endorsement of rival Mitt Romney — whom he barely mentioned — and a plea for the GOP candidates to stop attacking one another.
His decision was another boost to Romney, who is looking more and more like the inevitable Republican presidential nominee. On the same day Huntsman withdrew, two polls showed Romney with a double-digit lead in the next two voting states: South Carolina and Florida.
In Florida, an American Research Group poll released on Monday showed Romney with 42 percent to Gingrich’s 25 percent.
Gingrich, Santorum and Rick Perry — three out of the four remaining Romney rivals — have continued their attacks on the former governor, leading Huntsman to ask for civility in the race.
But his call follows years of bad blood between himself and Romney, the front-runner for the GOP nomination.
And the Romney campaign was notably slow to promote the endorsement, spending Monday morning touting the blessing of longtime Florida Rep. John Mica (R).
The former Massachusetts governor did not appear with Huntsman at Monday’s announcement and waited until after Huntsman stopped speaking to issue a terse statement: “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.”
In contrast, when Tim Pawlenty endorsed Romney in September, the campaign blasted out a two-paragraph release, calling the former Minnesota governor a “trusted adviser” and naming him a co-chairman of Romney’s campaign.
Pawlenty also campaigned with Romney in New Hampshire and has been a campaign surrogate in television interviews. The Romney campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
Huntsman only mentioned Romney once in his short speech Monday morning.
“I believe it is now time for our party to unite around 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 Gov. Mitt Romney,” he said.
His campaign told The Hill the former Utah governor will record a robocall for Romney, but did not mention any other activity on his behalf.
The two men have long been rivals: Both competed to run the Salt Lake City Olympics, a job that Romney won, and completed to much acclaim.
In the 2008 GOP presidential race, Huntsman endorsed Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the party's eventual nominee, over Romney.
The Democratic National Committee has been quick to jump on reports of tension between the two. The DNC released a Web video Monday splicing together clips of Huntsman attacking Romney and, on Sunday, sent out an email listing past comments Huntsman made against Romney.
Both men have downplayed any talk of a feud, but it has always been a question mark on the campaign trail as observers noted the similarities between them: Both are centrist Republicans, are Mormons and competed for the same group of voters.
Huntsman's small base of support came mostly from centrist Republicans and independents, two groups Romney does well with, and the former Utah governor's sparring with conservatives over global warming and evolution made him an unpopular figure with the GOP base Romney is trying to woo.
He was critical of Romney during the nomination process, calling him a "perfectly lubricated weather vane" and, more recently, attacking the GOP front-runner for saying he “likes to fire people.”
But after news broke he was going to endorse Romney, attack ads and websites critical of the former Massachusetts governor began to disappear from the Huntsman campaign website.
Of particular note, a number of YouTube videos that garnered a fair amount of media attention during Huntsman's run (even though they didn't seem to have much of an impact on his poll numbers or fundraising) are gone. One of the departed Web videos featured a mechanical monkey doing backflips on one side of the screen alongside clips of Romney making apparently contradictory statements on issues including abortion and an Ohio bill curtailing union bargaining rights.
The campaign also removed its 10kbet.com, which hit Romney for offering to make a $10,000 bet with Rick Perry during a Republican presidential debate.
The news of Huntsman’s departure broke late Sunday night and he made the official announcement Monday in Myrtle Beach, S.C., where he was scheduled to appear in that night’s GOP presidential debate.
Flanked by his wife, Mary Kaye Huntsman, and his daughter, Mary Anne Huntsman, and sharing the stage with some high-profile South Carolinians who endorsed him, the former Utah governor began his speech with a call for the Republican presidential field to stop attacking one another. He said the country's political discourse had become too toxic.
"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," Huntsman said. "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 brighter future for our children and grandchildren."
Huntsman also took a shot at Obama, whom he formerly served as ambassador to China.
"Three years ago, the president promised to unite the American people, yet his desire to engage in class warfare for political gain has left us more divided than ever," he said. "This divisiveness is corrosive and does not advance our nation's interest."
Huntsman's announcement Monday concluded a six-month-long campaign that began with a great deal of media attention. Aides said the decision was the culmination of weeklong discussions with top advisers and Huntsman's family.
— Last Updated at 4:18 p.m.