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Does Huntsman's drop from GOP race help Romney?



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SALT LAKE CITY -- It's all over for Jon Huntsman. Utah's former governor halted his presidential campaign Monday and threw his support behind Mitt Romney.

Huntsman has been in the basement, wandering in single-digit territory in the polls with the exception of a 17 percent showing in New Hampshire. His respectable, but disappointing, third-place showing there wasn't enough to pull in the big money he needed to refuel his campaign.

With a showdown looming in South Carolina, the former Utah governor once again was failing to take off in the polls. So Jon Huntsman went to the campaign stump with his family one last time, to throw in the towel.

"These last 6 months have been an incredible and awe inspiring journey," he said. "I have seen the very best of America."

Sunday, Huntsman won an endorsement from South Carolina's biggest newspaper. But his opponents are relentlessly going after one of that state's most important voting blocks -- social conservatives. Many, like Rick Santorum, have been making statements that appeal to the state's religious citizens.

"Faith at the center of not just your lives, but the center of our country's life," Santorum said.

In bowing out, Huntsman endorsed his strongest opponent, saying what the party needs most is a candidate who can beat President Obama in November.

"Despite our differences and the space between us on some of the issues, I believe that candidate is Mitt Romney," Huntsman said.

University of Utah political scientist Tim Chambless said Huntsman's poor poll numbers indicate he won't help Romney much.

"He doesn't have a great deal of support to give Mitt Romney at this point in time," Chambless said.

But his departure from the race will tend to unify the Mormon vote.

"It helps Republicans in the state of Utah. If Mitt Romney gets the Republican Party nomination, Democrats in the State of Uath are going to have a tough time," Chambless said.

Prominent Utah Republican Lane Beattie thinks Huntsman did help Romney simply by not fighting to the bitter end.

"And at this point in time, it does Mitt much better. Could he have stayed in? Certainly he could have stayed in. But for what? And at this point in time they have both come out winners," said Beattie, who is also the Pres. & CEO Salt Lake Chamber and former Utah Senate President.

Too nice to win?

There are those who think Huntsman was too nice a guy for this primary. And Huntsman himself called it a toxic campaign. And here's a question: now that Huntsman and Romney are theoretically on the same team, can they get along?

"Jon Huntsman is exceedingly nice and pleasant, has a high likeability quotient. But maybe not as voraciously angry as some of the voters who would have liked him to have been more assertive."

The former candidate said the campaign was "toxic."

"This race has degenerated into an onslaught of negative personal attacks not worthy of the American people and not worthy of this critical time in our nation's history," Huntsman said.

Chambless suggested that this was the most contentions presidential race in a lifetime. Huntsman himself joined other candidates attacking Romney's business record, attacking him in ads that said Romney tool $12 million and then laid off hundreds of people while in the private sector. Huntsman and Romney now presumably have to put those differences behind them.

There's also a potential personal issue between them. They went head to head a decade ago: both wanted to run the 2002 Olympics; Romney got the job. Beattie was also Utah's Olympic officer. He said he saw no evidence of a rift between Huntsman and Romney.

"These are two people who are both extremely competitive in their own right. And where there may have been inner feelings, I never saw in either of their cases that it was sensitive," he said.

Chambless even thinks Huntsman has a shot at being Romney's Secretary of State. But that's a few big steps ahead. Chambless thinks a Romney nomination is not a sure thing. And all the Republican feuding may be improving President Obama's chances of winning another term.

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John Hollenhorst

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