Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman will drop out of the Republican presidential primary on Monday and endorse his chief rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, according to sources in his campaign.
"It's true," said a Huntsman campaign source. "He doesn't want to stand in the way of the person who's best capable of beating Barack Obama, and that's Mitt Romney."
A Huntsman aide said Romney won't appear at Huntsman's endorsement, but the former Utah governor will tape a robocall for the former Massachusetts governor.
The senior campaign adviser said Huntsman's decision came after a "collective" discussion with advisers over the weekend and added the former governor struggled because it was a tough election cycle for a candidate like him.
Huntsman’s withdrawal comes as an obvious boost to Romney, who will benefit from the former governor’s support and will now have the centrist portion of the Republican spectrum to himself as he works to secure the GOP nomination.
With Huntsman out of the race, Romney is battling several rivals who are all trying to secure the support of conservatives: Rick Santorum, who finished a close second to Romney in the Iowa caucuses; former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.); and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Rep. Ron Paul (Texas), who is still in the race and is expected to win the support of his loyal followers as the contest moves from state to state.
Huntsman campaigned as a centrist Republican and promised to run a "civil' campaign, rising above partisan politics. That argument never caught fire with the Republican base, however, who want to see President Obama thrown out of office.
Many conservative voters still seem less than inspired by Romney's candidacy, but they so far have not coalesced around any other candidate. And with three Republicans still fighting to become the standard-bearer for conservatives, Romney will retain an advantage going forward.
Huntsman’s unexpected move, which came as he was scheduled to participate in a Monday night debate, reflected the grave circumstances facing his electoral ambitions after a third-place finish in Tuesday’s primary in New Hampshire failed to give him the jump-start his campaign needed.
The former ambassador to China had little hope of performing well in South Carolina, the next state to vote, on Jan. 21, and not enough money to compete with the top-tier contenders in the air war in South Carolina and Florida.
Yet unlike Perry, who after placing fifth in Iowa’s caucuses publicly contemplated dropping out, Huntsman insisted last week in New Hampshire that he was going on full force to South Carolina.
“I say third place is a ticket to ride, ladies and gentleman! Hello, South Carolina!" he said on the night of the New Hampshire primary, at the Manchester bar where he held his election-night party.
Santorum on Monday said Huntsman had simply lost the GOP centrist vote to Romney and was now backing the other centrist in the race.
"Moderates are backing moderates, that’s the bottom line," Santorum said, according to ABC News. "Gov. Huntsman ran as a moderate trying to compete with Gov. Romney for the establishment moderate vote. Gov. Romney had a leg up on him as being a solid moderate that the establishment could get behind, and Gov. Huntsman wasn’t able to crack through that."
A spokesman for Gingrich, who is polling a strong second in South Carolina, portrayed Huntsman's decision and planned endorsement of Romney as a general win for the entire Republican presidential field.
"With Gov. Huntsman dropping out, we are one step closer to a bold Reagan conservative winning the GOP nomination," Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond said in a statement.
Punctuating the fact that Huntsman's withdrawal came as a complete surprise in South Carolina was the endorsement he picked up earlier Sunday from The State, South Carolina's largest newspaper.
"Mr. Huntsman is a true conservative, with a record and platform of bold economic reform straight out of the free-market bible, but he’s a realist whose goal is likewise to get things done," the paper's editorial board wrote in endorsing Huntsman.
That endorsement did not cause him to pause in his plans to drop out, according to a source in the campaign.
Polling in South Carolina showed Huntsman in the single digits and at or near the bottom of the GOP field. An InsiderAdvantage poll released Sunday night before news broke of his intended departure from the race found him with 6 percent support in South Carolina, down one point from a poll taken the day after the New Hampshire primary.
Although he came into the race with a fair amount of hype, his campaign failed to gain traction from the start. He struggled to gain momentum in the polls and fundraising. And he failed to shake off his association with the White House, given that he served as Obama's ambassador to China.
His performance in debates were considered lackluster, and while businessman Herman Cain, Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), Perry and former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) each saw a surge in the polls, Huntsman never got his moment in the spotlight.
He is the fourth GOP candidate to drop out of the race, following Bachmann, Cain and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
— This story was posted at 9:35 p.m. on Jan. 15 and was last updated at 9:55 a.m.