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Romney steps aside to boost McCain, GOP

His withdrawal lets Republicans focus on winning in November.

By WES ALLISON and ADAM SMITH, Times Staff Writers
Published February 8, 2008

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., suspended his campaign for the presidency Thursday.
[Getty Images]
[AP photo]
Republican presidential hopeful John McCain asked the audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference to forget past disagreements and work toward winning in November.

WASHINGTON - Sen. John McCain, his path to the Republican presidential nomination all but clear, entered a den of skeptical conservative activists Wednesday with his rhetorical hat in hand, and asked that bygones be bygones.

Then he pleaded for their help.

Hours after former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney stunned Republican activists by announcing he was dropping his campaign for the nomination, McCain took the same stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference and tried to make nice with the party's conservative wing, reminding a crowd of thousands of his conservative record on spending, abortion and national defense while acknowledging he cannot win the White House without their help. He also apologized for missing the gathering last year.

"I know I have a responsibility if I am, as I hope to be, the Republican nominee for president, to unite the party and prepare for the great contest in November, and I am acutely aware that I cannot succeed in that endeavor ... without the support of dedicated conservatives whose convictions, creativity and energy have been indispensable to the success of our party," McCain, sounding more humble than usual, said to applause and a smattering of boos.

"We have had a few disagreements, and none of us will pretend that we won't continue to have a few. But even in disagreement, especially in disagreement, I will seek the counsel of my fellow conservatives. If I am convinced my judgment is in error, I will correct it. And if I stand by my position, even after benefit of your counsel, I hope you will not lose sight of the far more numerous occasions when we are in accord."

Earlier, Romney had roused the crowd with a speech that began railing against government spending, entitlements and a perceived liberal assault on family values, but ended with cries of "No" as he announced he was stepping aside for McCain.

After losing several early contests, Romney was drubbed again Tuesday when 21 states held Republican primary elections or caucuses, rendering it virtually impossible for him to catch McCain in the hunt for delegates to the party's nominating convention. But he couched his decision as a matter of national security, saying that slugging it out with McCain would only improve the chances that Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton or Barack Obama would win in November.

"Today we are a nation at war. And Barack and Hillary have made their intentions clear regarding Iraq and the war on terror: They would retreat, declare defeat," Romney said.

"I want you to know, I've given this a lot of thought - I'd forestall the launch of a national campaign and, frankly, I'd make it easier for Sen. Clinton or Obama to win. Frankly, in this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror. This isn't an easy decision. I hate to lose."

The premise behind the Romney campaign all along was that conservative Republicans would never nominate a moderate maverick like McCain. Telegenic and successful in business, Romney cast himself as the strongest conservative alternative to the Arizona senator and built a powerful organization fueled by top fundraisers and power brokers.

His game plan was to win the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary and ride the momentum into Florida, where he would all but clinch the nomination. Former Gov. Jeb Bush's top aides, including strategist Sally Bradshaw and fundraiser Ann Herberger, signed on early.

But Romney, who invested $40-million of his own money into the campaign, found himself splitting the conservative vote with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist preacher. He was also dogged by suspicion among many conservatives, given Romney's record of supporting abortion rights, gun rights and gay rights when he was running for governor of Massachusetts.

"Flip-flop. That's all you heard about Gov. Romney, flip-flop," said Sam Nunberg, 26, a law student in New York who volunteered for Romney in Iowa, New York and Florida. "Not why he changed his views, but flip-flop."

Romney lost Iowa to Huckabee and New Hampshire to McCain and arrived in Florida with little momentum. There he also faced an unprecedented turnout of McCain-friendly moderate Republicans, as well as a last-minute endorsement of McCain by Gov. Charlie Crist.

Losing Florida to McCain by 5 percentage points last week effectively sealed Romney's fate.

"I'm really proud of the effort," said Bradshaw. "I'm proud of the Romneys, and I think he leaves the race with significant political capital."

Perhaps more capital than if he stayed in the race and sparred with McCain for weeks more. Since he officially only suspended his campaign, Romney retains the 294 delegates he won, potentially giving him leverage at this summer's convention. Still, it's unclear if his supporters will flock to McCain.

Huckabee, whose gentle treatment of McCain has led to speculation that he's aiming for vice president, is continuing to campaign, even though there aren't enough delegates at stake for him to catch up. "I still believe this thing is a long way from being settled," he told reporters before taping an appearance on The Tyra Banks Show in New York.

McCain, who peppered his speech Wednesday with praise of Ronald Reagan, patron saint of conservative Republicans, and his years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, now faces the challenge of wooing staunch conservatives without compromising the moderate image that makes him appealing to many swing voters. At CPAC on Wednesday, a succession of conservative luminaries urged participants to line up behind McCain, including former Virginia Sen. George Allen, who was once a top pick for the GOP nomination, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla, and Dick Armey, the former House Republican leader.

McCain still faces skepticism and even hostility among rank-and-file conservatives who see him as an opponent of key values, however. These include his support of campaign finance reform, embryonic stem cell research and a bill to address global warming, as well as his advocacy of a bill providing a pathway to legal status for millions of illegal immigrants.

"One of the things that makes it so difficult is conservatives, lots of conservatives, believe he doesn't like them, he doesn't like the conservative movement, and that he would like to remake the Republican Party without them," said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which sponsors CPAC.

It is not enough for conservative Republicans to vote for McCain; for him to win, McCain needs them to work with him. Democrats are outraising Republicans, and some Republicans worry veteran fundraisers will be less enthusiastic about helping McCain than they were about President Bush. And then there are the foot soldiers who have helped the Republican Party dominate the get-out-the-vote campaign in recent elections.

"The extent to which I can go out and tell someone he's a great guy would be mitigated by things he's done in Congress that I just vehemently disapprove of," said Steve Hunt, an evangelical Republican activist from Fairfax Station, Va., who had supported Romney. "For Bush, I was handing out literature at Metro stops, I was going door to door, I was putting signs up. ...

"I can't envision doing any of those things for McCain."

[Last modified February 8, 2008, 13:35:46]

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