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Jon Huntsman’s exit: Whom will it help?

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The news that former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr. plans drop his White House bid on Monday and endorse former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney for the Republican nomination raises the question: Who will benefit most from Huntsman’s move?

View Photo Gallery: The former U.S. ambassador to China and governor of Utah was a contender for the Republican presidential nomination.

The answer: Huntsman himself.

That the former governor and ambassador to China has struggled to connect with the GOP primary electorate has been evident ever since he entered the race in June.

But it has been painfully clear in South Carolina, where he has never polled above the single digits. (It’s probably of little consolation to him that he has quadrupled his support in the state — from 1 percent to 4 percent — over the past four months.)

On Friday, Huntsman was the only member of the GOP presidential field not to send a representative to a meeting of evangelical leaders near Houston — a move that suggests his campaign was well aware of the challenges it faced in wooing Palmetto State conservatives.

Indeed, even in New Hampshire, the first-in-the-nation primary state on which Huntsman had hitched his White House aspirations, the former governor’s strongest support came not from Republicans, but from Democrats, who comprised 4 percent of the primary electorate; Huntsman received 40 percent of their vote.

So his exit doesn’t exactly mean there will be many primary voters up for grabs.

What it does mean is that he has moved to keep some doors from closing when it comes to his future ambitions.

Huntsman and Romney have had more than their share of personal ups and downs, as The Washington Post’s Jason Horowitz detailed in March. By backing Romney as he bows out — and on the verge of what could be the GOP front-runner’s third early-state win in a row — Huntsman will strike a new tone of cooperation in his relationship with his onetime competitor.

In doing so, he will keep himself relevant, keep the door open to stumping for Romney on the trail (and up his own name ID in the process) — and leave open the possibility of serving in a potential Romney administration. (Whether that’s a likely scenario is another story.)

By dropping out now instead of pursuing his bid until the bitter end, Huntsman also will leave the door open to another White House run — although this, too, merits a caveat.

Romney’s unsuccessful 2008 bid paved the way for his 2012 candidacy in part because he made a competitive showing. For Huntsman, just as it was for former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R) in 2008, a failed campaign focused on a one-state strategy would not seem to be the most convincing way to lay the groundwork for a successful future run.

Still, given the difficulty Huntsman had in gaining traction, his decision to exit the race and quickly back Romney was probably the best of all the options on the table.

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