Jon Huntsman set to drop out, back Romney. Will it make a difference?

Given the nature of Republican primary voting, moderate GOP candidate Jon Huntsman was a long shot from the beginning. He's set to endorse Mitt Romney, although it's unclear how much difference that will make in a race for the nomination that already favors Romney.

Matt Rourke/AP
Republican presidential candidate former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman descends stairs during an event in Charleston, S.C. Sunday. Campaign officials tell The Associated Press that Huntsman will drop out of the race and endorse Mitt Romney at an event in South Carolina on Monday morning.

And then there were five. Jon Huntsman’s withdrawal from the 2012 presidential race, announced Sunday, reduces the number of GOP hopefuls. But it’s unlikely to hasten the eventual selection of the Republican nominee, and it’s unclear who will be helped most by the former Utah governor’s move – even though he’s endorsing Mitt Romney.

The fact is, Huntsman’s candidacy has been a very long shot from the beginning, and his poll numbers had him at the back of the pack all along – no more than 4 percent, and usually half that if not less. His third-place finish in the New Hampshire primary (behind Romney and libertarian Ron Paul) – the state where he’d focused most of his campaign effort – had to have been a disappointment.

Given the more-conservative hue of Republican primary voters in the upcoming South Carolina primary Saturday, Huntsman’s prospects for a comeback were all but nil.

Election 101: Ten facts about Jon Huntsman and his presidential campaign

Unlike Michele Bachmann, who bailed out the day after coming in sixth in the Iowa caucuses (Huntsman was seventh), Huntsman never had his moment in the sun. Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich rose and fell, Herman Cain was forced out by questions about his character, and Rick Santorum has had a bit of a surge lately as the latest anti-Romney favored by evangelical Christians and other social conservatives. It was a phenomenon in the 2012 presidential race that Huntsman never enjoyed.

He is a highly-respected moderate Republican with an impressive political background, a manner that is pleasant (with some awkward moments when he tries to be funny or hip), and a wealthy family background that allowed him to start his campaign with $2 million of his own money and a billionaire father who was the chief funder of a super PAC created to help Huntsman’s presidential effort. Like Romney, he’s a Mormon, although apparently more relaxed about it at a time when the church still is viewed as suspect by a significant percentage of self-identified conservative Christians.

His record as governor was (or at least should have been) a strong asset. His other major political position – US Ambassador to China – certainly indicated a high level of experience in foreign affairs and trade, something generally lacking among his rivals … except that he served overseas under the president he hoped to unseat.

Although he could be critical of his opponents on issues, Huntsman emphasized “civility, humanity and respect” in his campaign – even going out of his way to note that President Obama loved the United States just as much as he does. That was not necessarily the attitude displayed by party activists during the primary election season – certainly not by conservative talk show hosts for whom ridicule and derision is a primary means of political discourse.

Ironically, news of Huntsman’s withdrawal came on the same day The State, South Carolina's largest newspaper, endorsed him for president. The endorsement said there were "two sensible, experienced grownups in the race," referring to Romney and Huntsman. But it said Huntsman "is more principled, has a far more impressive resume, and offers a significantly more important message."

Although Huntsman was scheduled to make his announcement – including the Romney endorsement – Sunday morning, campaign officials told several news sources Saturday that the decision had been made.

“The governor and his family, at this point in the race, decided it was time for Republicans to rally around a candidate who could beat Barack Obama and turn around the economy,” campaign manager Matt David told the New York Times. “That candidate is Gov. Mitt Romney.”

Election 101: Ten facts about Jon Huntsman and his presidential campaign

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