JUDY WOODRUFF: Voters will head to the polls this coming Saturday for the primary election in South Carolina. But the field of Republican presidential candidates left standing has now winnowed to five.
For Jon Huntsman, today marked the end of the campaign trail. The former Utah governor and U.S. ambassador to China announced his intentions in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
JON HUNTSMAN (R): Today, I am suspending my campaign for the presidency. I believe it is now time for our party to unite around the candidate best equipped to defeat Barack Obama.
Despite our differences and the space between us on some of the issues, I believe that candidate is Gov. Mitt Romney.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Romney didn’t join Huntsman at the event. Instead, the former Massachusetts governor released a statement shortly after the endorsement.
In it, he said, “I salute Jon Huntsman and his wife, Mary Kaye. Jon ran a spirited campaign based on unity, not division, and love of country. I appreciate his friendship and support.”
The Reuters/Ipsos poll released over the weekend showed Romney holding a 20-point lead in South Carolina. Rick Santorum and Ron Paul were tied for second, followed by Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry. Other polls show Romney with a slimmer lead. Huntsman had been running last before his withdrawal today. He urged the remaining candidates to stop attacking each other.
JON HUNTSMAN: 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.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But that advice may not take. Santorum complained today that a pro-Romney political action committee is airing ads that distort his record on voting rights for felons.
RICK SANTORUM (R): Maybe his super PAC should redo the ad and criticize Gov. Romney for being soft on felons, because, in fact, his position on felons voting was weaker than mine.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The former Pennsylvania senator was pressing to emerge as the lead alternative to Romney. He got a boost this weekend when he won the support of evangelical leaders who gathered in Texas. Gingrich, meanwhile, played up the notion that he is the conservative answer to Romney during a Sunday appearance on CBS.
NEWT GINGRICH (R): I think it’s very hard for him to differentiate Romneycare from Obamacare. It’s very hard for him to differentiate appointing liberal judges, which he did when he was the governor of Massachusetts.
I mean, these are things that are going to come up. And I think, for the conservative movement, it makes it more difficult, frankly. And that’s why I think, here in South Carolina, I’m probably going to win next Saturday, because as a Georgia Reagan conservative, I fit much more comfortably with the average South Carolina Republican.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile Texas Gov. Rick Perry continued looking for votes in South Carolina, including at this event in Myrtle Beach.
GOV. RICK PERRY, R-Texas: I’m the one person on that stage who is an outsider. I’m the one person on that stage who has a record of 11 years’ worth of operating a major entity and working in the same environment basically with Democrats and Republicans and been successful at it. I’m the one individual who has been a consistent social and fiscal conservative for my entire life.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Texas Congressman Ron Paul also campaigned in South Carolina today.
REP. RON PAUL, R-Texas: One thing that I think our federal government needs to do — I’m running for a federal office, to be president of the United States — and my position on the spending is the first year to cut $1 trillion out of the budget.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
JUDY WOODRUFF: All five Republican contenders meet tonight for the first of two debates this week leading up to the South Carolina primary on Saturday.
JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on the campaign and what to watch for in tonight’s debate, we’re joined by Christina Bellantoni, political editor at the NewsHour, and Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today.
It’s good to have you both with us.
Susan, I’m going to start with you.
Why did Huntsman get out so soon after he said he was going to stay in and on the day he got this big state newspaper endorsement in South Carolina?
SUSAN PAGE, Washington Bureau Chief, USA Today: Well, in fact, the state where he devoted all his resources, New Hampshire, he only came in third, and not even a close third.
So it wasn’t — he did not really get propelled to South Carolina in the way he had hoped to. And if you look at the national polls and the state polls, he never got out of single digits. I think he’s conservative in policy, but moderate in tone. And that was really out of sync with Republicans, who are so mad at Barack Obama and so determined to defeat him. It just — he just never made his case with Republican voters.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Christina, was this an abrupt decision on his part, or has this been building?
CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Well, this was sort of building over the weekend. He made a big point to say he had a ticket to ride out of New Hampshire.
But it was pretty clear, looking at a lot of the numbers on where his support was, that that was not going to translate to a win in South Carolina, and probably not going to do anything in Florida either. So, I think he talked his over with his family, his advisers. Then he sort of made the final, final decision yesterday. And I think that it’s very — something like this, it just takes time to sort of come to the decision.
JUDY WOODRUFF: What would you add to what Susan said about why his candidacy didn’t take off?
CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: One thing that was very interesting, the Obama campaign made very clear that they were concerned about his candidacy. They felt like he’s somebody who could appeal to those moderates and independents that are sort of in the middle and telling pollsters that they aren’t happy with the direction the country is going.
So that’s where he had a lot of his appeal. But that’s not what Republican primary voters seem to be looking for at this point.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Susan, he endorsed Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney didn’t even bother to show up for this endorsement.
JUDY WOODRUFF: How much difference, if any, does it make?
SUSAN PAGE: You know, I don’t think it makes a difference in that he’s transferring support to Mitt Romney, because he doesn’t really. But I do think it feeds this perception that Mitt Romney is now the inevitable nominee, that the party establishment is coalescing behind him.
We certainly see that in national polls, in the Gallup poll today, Romney up to 37 percent. Historically, the candidate who leads — the Republican candidate who leads after New Hampshire has invariably gotten the nomination. So, it would defy history for someone else to get the nomination, not Mitt Romney, at this point.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, it’s not a matter of votes. It’s just a matter of imprimatur.
SUSAN PAGE: It’s a matter of the party — with the exception of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum and Rick Perry, the party as a whole seems to be coming together on Mitt Romney.
And even Republicans who are not thrilled with the idea of Mitt Romney as the nominee find him acceptable as the nominee. And that’s one of the things that makes it hard to knock him off path here.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And speaking, Christina, of Republicans not thrilled with Mitt Romney, there was this gathering over the weekend in Texas of evangelicals, Christian conservatives. Should we be more focused on the fact that it took them three ballots to get to saying, we like Rick Santorum more than anybody else, or on the fact that they did agree on…
CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Yeah, I talked to several evangelical leaders today. And some of them were even downplaying that there was any consensus out of this.
You know, they did come to an agreement on Rick Santorum, but it wasn’t unanimous, and some of the Gingrich supporters have been crying foul, suggesting that perhaps there was a Catholic group that was trying to influence that vote.
And I think that the Romney people are really not talking about this. They’re suggesting, look, we’re still strong. A lot of these people found us acceptable.
And, in fact, I talked to a senior vice president with Focus on the Family, which doesn’t endorse, and they didn’t attend the meeting. They said, absolutely, we’re seeing social conservative find him acceptable. They can deal with him as the nominee.
But they did stress that they believe that some evangelicals are still uncomfortable with his Mormon faith. And so that’s something that they said he’s going to have to address if he’s going to want to deliver that vote in the general election.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Susan, does an event like this weekend meeting in Texas play into the campaign in a serious way?
SUSAN PAGE: Well, I think it could have if it had been a little earlier.
You know, this is a — the campaign path is pretty well set now. Also, if they had managed to winnow the field of social conservatives vying for that vote, if for instance, they had said we’re for Santorum and we’re calling on Gingrich and Perry to get out of the race, that might have had some influence.
But they didn’t do that. And among Christian evangelicals, you find some significant support for Newt Gingrich. Actually, the candidate in New Hampshire who got the most votes from evangelical and born-again Christians was Mitt Romney, who got about a third of their votes, more than Rick Santorum.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Which is this part of the story that’s been overlooked.
CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Yes. And you’re not seeing — whatever this group ends up doing, it’s not translated to anything in South Carolina yet.
You haven’t seen them put anything on the airwaves. You’re going to have a few things here and there. Gary Bauer, who already has endorsed Santorum, is going to do some radio ads. But you’re not really seeing a grassroots efforts.
And I think that’s where this group, if they wanted to have some influence, they could. And they’re not doing it yet.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Susan, the debate tonight, what should we look for? Yet another — is this 18 or 88?
SUSAN PAGE: It seems like 88. It’s 16 more, than we have ever had before in primaries.
I think look for a couple things. One, does Mitt Romney make a mistake? He’s been pretty steady. He made one maybe big — one error with the, “I will bet you $10,000.” That was probably a mistake.
JUDY WOODRUFF: A few debates ago.
SUSAN PAGE: A few debates ago. But he’s been pretty steady in the debates. He needs to get through this debate, the debate on Thursday night, unscathed.
I think also look for battles between Gingrich and Santorum, because once again you see a battle to be the alternative to Romney. That’s not yet settled. And, so, do Gingrich and Santorum focus their fire on Mitt Romney or do they shoot at each other?
JUDY WOODRUFF: And this is the first time we’re down to five, Christina. So the arguments could be sharper tonight. The candidates will have more time.
CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Sharper. More time, I think that that will make a big difference.
And you saw actually — it reminds me a little bit of what the Democrats went through in 2008. Once they got to that South Carolina contest, there were just three of them. They really went after one another. This was where the attacks got very sharp.
But they’re going to have another chance on Thursday night to sort hone those attacks. But, really, there are just a few days left here. And the candidates, it appears, will probably train their sights on Romney.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Susan, on the one hand, it is late in the process for this group to meet in Texas. On the other hand, people around the rest of the country are saying, wait a minute, it’s almost over and it’s just Jan. 15 or the 21st by the time South Carolina votes.
What is that American voters, Republicans, should be thinking, should be looking for in the coming weeks in this campaign?
SUSAN PAGE: Well, you know, we say it’s going to be over, that he will be the — Romney could be the presumptive nominee after — three weeks after the first contest. That seems extraordinary.
But we should keep in mind that under the new rules that Republicans have, no one will mathematically clinch the nomination until at least April. So there is still time for there to be some kind of unexpected event that shuffles the deck. And we shouldn’t forget that. But there’s — that’s the math. If you talk about the momentum, the momentum seems to all be behind Mitt Romney at this point.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Just quickly, Ron Paul…
CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Yes, exactly. You will hear Ron Paul discuss that math. And that’s one reason why he’s organizing in these caucus states. He’s trying to gather as many delegates as he can to be able to say, I have a bit of a mandate here. I have this portion of the Republican Party.
And who knows what will actually happen of that, but I — that will prevent it from feeling like it’s completely over.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it will be – we’ll all be watching tonight’s debate and the one on Thursday. And we will be talking to the two of you again.
Thank you, Susan Page.
Christina Bellantoni, thank you.
SUSAN PAGE: Thank you, Judy.