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Breaking News: Romney quits; McCain now likely GOP nominee

February 7, 2008 | 10:58 am

Facing the political reality of an almost certain nomination victory by Sen. John McCain -- and vowing to return to politics -- former Gov. Mitt Romney formally dropped out of the GOP race for president minutes ago.

Clearly, Romney had been pondering this decision for days, as reported in detail here Monday. Despite large boldfaced vows to continue the fight for months, aides say he reached a tentative conclusion with his wife Ann to quit last night, but decided to sleep on it before making it formal today.

In Washington, where he advanced his well-financed but at-the-time little-known run about 10 months ago before the same CPAC group of conservatives, the 60-year-old Romney said all the right words in a speech to....

demonstrate his party loyalty and conservative credentials and to set the stage for his continued political presence in the future after the time of the now-presumptive nominee, McCain, who is 71.

"I look forward to joining you," he said, smiling, "many, many times in the future."

"I know you're with me all the way to the convention just as Ronald Reagan did in 1976," Romney said to his band of supporters within the larger Conservative Political Action Committee audience. They cheered. "But there's an important difference from 1976." They groaned. "We are at war....If this were only about me, I'd go on. But it's never been about me."

He said, "Barack and Hillary want to retreat." Boos. "Now, you know," he added, "I disagree with Sen. McCain on a number of issues. But I agree with him on the need to do whatever it takes to be successful in Iraq and to find and execute Osama bin Laden."

Romney had campaigned hard, even making a long, last-minute transcontinental flight on the eve of Super Tuesday for a 10-minute speech in Long Beach when internal polling showed his immigration attacks on McCain were working in California.

But while he drew many votes, under party rules, Romney lost 49 of the state's 53 congressional district to McCain, likely the nail in the coffin of the ex-governor's efforts. He held a full budget and staffing review Wednesday, as forecast here, and from that came his decision.

In his speech today, Romney noted he had gathered about 4 million primary votes to McCain's 4.7 million and 11 states to McCain's 13. "But because size does matter, he's doing a lot better with delegates," Romney added. To continue the party nomination struggle to the convention, the former governor said, would only delay launching the eventual nominee's national campaign.

Appearing vigorous and energetic, unlike the sometimes robotic speaking style he displayed on the campaign trail, Romney said: "Because I love America, I feel I must stand aside."

In a strange twist, his step leaves Rep. Ron Paul, the former Libertarian Party candidate, as the third-ranking active GOP presidential candidate.

Technically, Romney suspended his campaign, which keeps ownership of his hardwon delegates under his control. But his campaign, which involved $35.5 million of the candidate's own personal fortune and more than $55 million donated by others, is over. And the pressure will now mount on former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who's even farther behind McCain, to end his hopeless effort too, possibly later today.

And there's pressure on McCain, who speaks to the same group later today but whose conservative bona fides -- he voted against the Bush tax cuts twice, co-wrote the McCain-Feingold finance reform bill and last spring favored with President Bush a much more liberal immigration reform bill -- are viewed much more suspiciously by many party conservatives.

McCain can take a major step toward party unity today -- he needs to gain support from the GOP's conservative wing without worrying moderate and independent supporters. His words will be crucial and careful. And although his advance text does not contain any reference to Romney, McCain will have to acknowledge him gracefully somehow.

While Romney did not heap much praise on McCain, he did display an abundance of party loyalty and vow to continue to fight for conservative principles, which he outlined and said included strong moral values, protection of the family, fiscal conservatism and finally addressing the mounting entitlement budget challenge and the issue of energy dependence on foreign countries.

Above all, he called for a larger, stronger military defense of 4% of gross domestic product. It was all red meat for his conservative audience and, according to the Republicans' historic tradition of primogenitor, Romney quietly stepped into line as a likely candidate to inherit the party's leadership someday, if McCain loses come November.

Watch now as Romney, who is not well-known among many party loyalists across the country, campaigns vigorously for national and local candidates in coming months and years of Lincoln Day dinners to establish the kind of longterm familiarity, comfort and political debts as McCain and before him Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Sen. Bob Dole and Rep. Gerald Ford did to earn their ultimate top nominations.

Romney might even be considered a possible vice presidential or Cabinet pick for McCain, who will need a strong, younger partner to run with, one who, given McCain's age--he would be the oldest man to become president at 72 next January --could appear capable of stepping in immediately as chief executive.

And one who crucially, like Romney, Huckabee or Florida's popular Gov. Charlie Crist is from outside Washington (and helped McCain politically during the current campaign).

--Andrew Malcolm