(Photo: REUTERS/Eric Thayer)
MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. – Presidential candidate Jon Huntsman announced on Monday that he is dropping out of the race and will endorse Mitt Romney.
"This race has degenerated and the current 'toxic' form of political discourse does not help our cause," a dejected Huntsman told a roomful of reporters. "I am calling on each campaign to stop attacking each other. Instead, let's invest our time and resources in building trust."
Accompanied by his wife, Mary Kaye, four of his daughters and his father, Huntsman gave brief remarks and took no questions after the press conference. He had positioned himself as the most moderate candidate in the race. He had tried to build a coalition of moderate Republicans, independents and Democratic crossover voters.
But a disappointing third place finish in New Hampshire further set back his campaign.
Huntsman's decision was apparently based upon the belief that former Massachusetts Governor Romney will be the eventual nominee, and Romney will have a better chance to win in the general election if he wins the nomination early.
“For our nation to move forward together with new leadership and unity, the Republican Party must first unite,” Huntsman noted. "Despite our differences on some of the issues, I am formally endorsing Mitt Romney as the next president of the United States."
Leaders in the conservative wing of the party met in Texas on Saturday and decided to throw their support behind former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. This GOP voting bloc is now splitting their votes mostly between Santorum and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.
With Huntsman's endorsement of Romney, the more moderate wing of the party has consolidated behind Romney. The conservative wing of the party, however, is still splitting their votes among candidates, thus helping Romney win a plurality of the vote.
A new nationwide Fox News poll shows Romney with 40 percent of the vote, a 15-point lead.
One of Huntsman's strengths in the race was his lengthy résume and foreign policy experience. He was governor of Utah and has served under three separate presidents: George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Huntsman, like Romney, is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ-Latter Day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church.
Huntsman is now the second candidate, after Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (Minnesota), to quit since the first votes were cast in Iowa on Jan. 3. Georgia businessman Herman Cain bowed out before the Iowa contest as a result of allegations of sexual harassment that appeared to drain energy from his campaign.
"I have seen the best in America," Huntsman exclaimed. "Because in the end, we must come together for liberty."
The next GOP debate will take place in Myrtle Beach on Monday night, followed by a second South Carolina debate in Charleston on Thursday night. The South Carolina primary will take place on Jan. 21.
Paul Stanley contributed reporting for this story.