WASHINGTON — John McCain effectively sealed the Republican presidential nomination on Thursday as chief rival Mitt Romney suspended his faltering campaign.
“I must now stand aside, for our party and our country,” Romney told conservatives.
“If I fight on in my campaign, all the way to the convention, I would forestall the launch of a national campaign and make it more likely that Senator Clinton or Obama would win,” Romney told the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.
Boone County Republicans expressed regret about Romney’s departure from the race. Romney was the county’s top vote-getter Tuesday among the Republican contenders.
“It was disappointing,” said Jordan Clementi, president of the Mizzou College Republicans.
“We’re going to continue to support the other Republican candidates,” Clementi said.“But Romney was the full package. He was the all-around, good American conservative.”
Mary Lou Green with the Boone County Republican Central Committee said she hoped McCain would develop positions that united the party and paved the way toward the White House.
“It will depend on what the Democrats do,” Green said. “Several things about McCain I don’t agree with. I do agree with him about finishing the war and not backing down or backing out. He talked in his speech this morning about small government. I think he could unite the party if he sticks with that.”
Romney’s decision leaves McCain as the top man in the GOP race, with Mike Huckabee and Texas Rep. Ron Paul far behind in the delegate hunt.
It was a remarkable turnaround for McCain, who some seven months ago was barely viable, out of cash and losing staff. The four-term Arizona senator was denied his party’s nomination in 2000.
Commenting on his front-runner status — a title he had and lost last year — McCain told the conference, “This time I now have that distinction and I prefer to hold onto it for quite a while.”
McCain and Romney spoke by phone after Romney’s speech, though no endorsement was requested nor offered, according to a Republican official with knowledge of the conversation.
Within hours of Romney’s speech, former Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman endorsed McCain and urged all members of the GOP to back him.
“Our party has had many outstanding candidates this year, but it is now time for Republicans across the country to unite,” Mehlman said.
McCain prevailed in most of the Super Tuesday states, moving closer to the 1,191 delegates needed to win the nomination at this summer’s convention. Overall, McCain led with 707 delegates, to 294 for Romney, 195 for Huckabee and 14 for Paul.
Romney suspended his campaign, allowing him to hold onto his delegates. However, if McCain secures their support — combined with his own delegates — he would be nearly at the magic number and Huckabee would be mathematically eliminated. It is unlikely Romney would throw his support to Huckabee; the animosity between the two has pervaded the GOP race.
Romney’s departure from the race came almost a year after his formal entrance, when the Michigan native declared his candidacy on Feb. 12, 2007, at the Henry Ford Museum of Innovation in Dearborn, Mich.
Over the ensuing 12 months, Romney sought the support of conservatives with a family values campaign, emphasizing his opposition to abortion and gay marriage, as well as his support for tax cuts and health insurance that would benefit middle-class families. The former Massachusetts governor and venture capitalist invested more than $40 million of his own money into the race, counted on early wins in Iowa and New Hampshire that never materialized and won just seven states on Super Tuesday, mostly small caucus states.
“This is not an easy decision for me,” Romney said. “I hate to lose. If this were only about me, I would go on. But I entered this race because I love America.”
There were shouts of astonishment, with some moans and others yelling, “No, No.”
Romney responded, “You guys are great.”
“As of today, more than 4 million people have given me their vote for president; that’s of course, less than Senator McCain’s 4.7 million, but quite a statement nonetheless,” Romney said. “Eleven states have given me their nod, compared to his 13. Of course, because size does matter, he’s doing quite a bit better with the number of delegates he’s got.” Missourian reporter Jenn Herseim contributed to this report.