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First Thoughts: Huntsman exits the stage - but not to the right

Huntsman exits the GOP presidential stage, but not to the right… Huntsman endorsing Romney is a psychological boost to the Romney campaign… But don’t forget: Huntsman’s entire campaign was premised on being the anti-Romney… Other observations about Huntsman’s exit from NBC’s Jo Ling Kent… Social conservatives decide that Santorum is their guy… And Sweet Sixteen: At 9:00 pm ET, the remaining five GOP candidates participate in the 16th debate of the cycle.

*** Huntsman exits the stage -- but not to the right: And then there were five. At a speech from Myrtle Beach, SC at 11:00 am ET, former Utah Gov. (and former China ambassador) Jon Huntsman will announce his departure from the Republican presidential race and will endorse Mitt Romney, NBC’s Jo Ling Kent reported last night. Despite the attention his candidacy received from the Chattering Class and despite the help from a Super PAC financed in part by his wealthy father, Huntsman never took off. A big reason was tone. He was the only GOP presidential candidate who never adopted the Tea Party’s rhetoric. Besides Ron Paul, he was the only one calling for the U.S. to withdraw from Afghanistan. And he was the only one calling for civility in politics. “We will conduct this campaign on the high road; I don't think you need to run down someone's reputation in order to run for the office of president,” Huntsman said at his presidential kick-off speech. As BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith noted, Huntsman made a gamble -- back in 2009 -- that his party would turn to the middle either tonally or ideologically. And that gamble turned out to be wrong.

*** Huntsman’s endorsement is a psychological boost to Team Romney: While Huntsman’s departure won’t really change the dynamics of the GOP race -- just look at what Huntsman was polling outside New Hampshire (where he finished third last week) -- his endorsement of Romney gives the GOP front-runner a psychological boost. Why? It feeds into the narrative that Romney’s nomination is inevitable, and that it’s time for all Republicans (even ones who were BIG critics of Romney from the get-go) to jump on the Romney train. Consequently, the endorsement also puts pressure on the conservative challengers to Romney. By announcing the end of his campaign on a holiday before tonight’s GOP debate, Huntsman is grabbing a moment. But make no mistake: He’s giving Romney a moment, too. And it eliminates any speculation that Huntsman might try to make a third-party bid. 

*** But the anti-Romney endorses Romney: That said, Huntsman endorsing Romney so quickly contradicts the entire premise of Huntsman’s candidacy, which was supposed to be a contrast with the former Massachusetts governor. While Huntsman is endorsing Romney because of electability -- “He did not want to stand in the way of the candidate best prepared to beat Barack Obama and turn the economy around. That's Mitt Romney," a source close to the campaign told NBC’s Kent -- he didn’t always think that was the case. On “Meet the Press” back in November, per NBC’s Chris Donovan, Huntsman said of Romney: “I think when you're on too many sides of the issues of the day, when you don't have that core, when there's that element of trust out there, I think that becomes a problem, and I think it makes you unelectable against Barack Obama.” It’s also worth noting that the Huntsman campaign’s YouTube channel has purged all of its anti-Romney videos.

*** The candidate and staff weren’t on the same page: If you ever talked with the folks on the Huntsman campaign -- staffed by many of the same McCain folks who battled with Romney in ’08 – it was clear they eagerly wanted to fight Romney. But it was equally clear that the campaign and candidate weren’t on the same page. Bottom line: The candidate never acted publicly the way the campaign staff wanted. Or to put it another way: The candidate didn’t have a campaign staff that seemed to understand the campaign he WANTED to run. And the campaign blueprint -- McCain 2000 (the maverick challenger to Bush) -- also didn’t work because Huntsman didn’t have a personal narrative like McCain’s to overcome some of the ideological weaknesses he brought to the race.

*** Other observations on Huntsman’s exit: NBC’s Jo Ling Kent makes a few other observations about Huntsman, whom she has covered over the past several months: Just a few days ago, he said his expectations in SC were "very low"… On Sunday morning, his campaign received a big endorsement from The State newspaper… His last day on the trail barely qualified as a campaign day; he went to an Episcopal church (closed press) with family in Charleston and stopped by a diner Virginia's on King and shook maybe 30 hands… And on his "restoring trust tour" Huntsman declined to actually say Romney could not be trusted, even though he strongly alluded to it all the time.

*** Social conservatives decide that Santorum is their man: In addition to Huntsman’s exit from the GOP race, the other big news over the weekend was the decision by those evangelicals huddling in Texas to back Rick Santorum. As CBN reported, “After a two day meeting at a ranch outside of Houston a group of 150 Christian leaders, business leaders and conservative activists have coalesced behind Rick Santorum. Friday night surrogates from every GOP campaign (except that of Jon Huntsman) attended the meeting and made the case for their candidate.  Saturday leaders took part in a ‘passionate time’ of discussions about what they're looking for in a conservative leader. After three rounds of balloting Santorum emerged as the candidate leaders feel they can support.”

*** Sweet Sixteen: Tonight, the five remaining GOP presidential candidates (Gingrich Paul, Perry, Romney, and Santorum) will participate in the 16th GOP debate of the cycle. The debate, which airs on FOX News, takes place beginning at 9:00 pm ET from Myrtle Beach. And if last week was about litigating Bain, this week may very well be about litigating Romney’s ideology and possibly even his faith. It also might be about Santorum and Gingrich battling over conservatives. Here’s Santorum from earlier this morning in Columbia: “Newt Gingrich says he's most electable, so then why did he finish behind me in both those states? I think if you're looking for the candidate who can coalesce, head to head with Romney…  I beat Romney, and it’s not even close. It’s not about coalescing behind the conservative; it’s about coalescing behind the conservative who can win.”

*** On the trail: Before tonight’s debate, all five candidates will speak at a SC Faith and Freedom Coalition Kickoff event in Myrtle Beach, and three of them (Santorum, Gingrich, and Paul) speak at a Tea Party Coalition convention. Also today: Santorum stumps in Columbia and Myrtle Beach… Perry attends a town hall in Myrtle Beach… And Gingrich holds a town hall and media avail in Myrtle Beach.

Countdown to South Carolina primary: 5 days
Countdown to Florida primary: 15 days
Countdown to Nevada caucuses: 19 days
Countdown to Super Tuesday: 50 days
Countdown to Election Day: 295 days

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