NBC's Peter Alexander reports.
Jon Huntsman ended his campaign for president Monday on a cautionary note to fellow Republicans, urging them to abandon negative campaigning or risk fostering a "toxic" political environment.
The former Utah governor ended his campaign the presidency and endorsed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, calling him the best-suited candidate to take on President Obama this fall.
Huntsman backed Romney, "despite our differences and the space between us on some of the issues" — a nod to the sharp criticism of Romney that Huntsman had voiced at times throughout the campaign.
Huntsman had been one of Romney's chief critics, especially in New Hampshire — the state on which the former ambassador to China hinged his campaign, and which Romney had long been expected to win (and eventually did).
Huntsman accused Romney of having no "core," characterizing his rival as too squishy on important issues to face off credibly against President Obama.
But Huntsman, who started considering ending his campaign a few days ago, started to see Romney as the eventual nominee. The two spoke for about five minutes last night, and Huntsman agreed to record a call targeted for Republican and moderate voters in South Carolina, which hosts its crucial primary on Saturday.
But Huntsman also painted a broader cautionary portrait for the GOP. Having postured himself as the relative centrist in the Republican field, Huntsman's campaign rhetoric often focused on themes of unity and country first. He hammered on those notes in his exit speech.
"As candidates for our party's nomination, our common goal is to restore bold and principled leadership to the White House," he said. "Yet rather than seeking to advance that common goal by speaking directly to voters about our ideas … this race has degenerated into an onslaught of negative and personal attacks not worthy of the American people."
The sniping between the candidates has become especially public in South Carolina ahead of its primary next weekend. The rest of the field is trying to coalesce against Romney, the winner of the preceding Iowa and New Hampshire nominating contests. A win there for Romney could all but clinch the momentum needed to secure the nomination.
"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," Huntsman said. "Today I call on each campaign to cease attacking each other and instead talk directly to the American people."
NBC campaign embed reporter Jo Kent explains John Huntsman's decision to drop out.
Huntsman's campaign launched with a great deal of media fanfare, not least of which resulted from his decision to resign a spot in the Obama administration to run against a president for whom Huntsman had worked.
But the campaign's launch stumbled out of the gate and never seemed to gain momentum; even Huntsman's last-minute push in the New Hampshire primary ultimately resulted in a disappointing third place finish.
NBC's Jo Ling Kent contributed reporting.