The race to become this year's Republican presidential nominee got a little less crowded yesterday as Jon Huntsman, a former Governor of Utah, called it quits and offered his endorsement to Mitt Romney, potentially giving him an important boost before this Saturday's primary election in South Carolina.
Though conservative on fiscal policy, Mr Huntsman had otherwise stood out in the field as a relative moderate who mostly resisted pandering to the right. He maintained his support for civil unions for gays and lesbians, for instance. That – and his time spent recently as President Barack Obama's ambassador to China – made him a non-starter with a broad swath of the party. While he came in a decent third in New Hampshire last week, nationally he has consistently polled in the single digits.
Standing with his wife, father and four daughters on a podium in Myrtle Beach, Mr Huntsman reiterated another theme of his now-defunct campaign – civility on the trail. "The race has degenerated into an onslaught of negative and personal attacks not worthy of the American people," he said, urging the candidates still in the field to lay down their arms. "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."
His endorsement of Mr Romney as the "candidate best equipped to defeat Barack Obama" may help the former Massachusetts Governor, who is looking to make it three in a row with a win in South Carolina. The extra few percentage points of support could be important on Saturday. But wavering conservatives may see Mr Huntsman's endorsement as confirmation that Mr Romney is similarly too close to the centre ideologically to earn their support.
There are now five competitors remaining with three among them – Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry – battling for the conservative vote in the knowledge that the only way Mr Romney will be stopped is if just one of them emerges as the conservative alternative in the state, where Republican ranks are heavy with evangelical Christians. Mr Perry, the Governor of Texas, looks the most vulnerable and might be forced out of the race after this weekend, when the focus shifts to the Florida primary.
"It narrows down the field and I think the next five or six days are going to tell the tale," Mr Gingrich said of Mr Huntsman's departure. "If the conservatives consolidate, it's clear that I'll beat Romney. The next five days are going to be wild. Really, the test here is really simple: if the conservatives consolidate, Romney loses decisively. If they don't consolidate, it's going to be very close."
Mr Santorum, a former US Senator in Pennsylvania with staunch social-conservative views, said only that he had been expecting Mr Huntsman to throw in the towel earlier. As for the Romney endorsement, he was dismissive: "Moderates are backing moderates... no surprise there."
The remaining candidates, including libertarian Ron Paul, who looks unlikely to repeat his second-place finish from New Hampshire in South Carolina, were to engage in a live television debate last night. Another debate is set for Thursday.