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Romney Out, McCain Looks Ahead
But the reception McCain received yesterday at the annual conservative conference, where he was booed loudly when introduced, pointed to the fractured coalition that he must reunite before what is expected to be a challenging fall campaign.
"I am acutely aware that I cannot succeed in that endeavor, nor can our party prevail over the challenge we will face from either Senator Clinton or Senator Obama, without the support of dedicated conservatives, whose convictions, creativity and energy have been indispensable to the success our party has had over the last quarter-century," he said.
Romney announced his decision at the end of his appearance at CPAC and hours before McCain spoke. His speech sounded like a conservative call to arms by a candidate still engaged in a battle for the nomination, but he explained his decision as one influenced by the fact that the country is at war.
"I disagree with Senator McCain on a number of issues, as you know," he said. "But I agree with him on doing whatever it takes to be successful in Iraq, on finding and executing Osama bin Laden, and on eliminating al-Qaeda and terror. 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. And in this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror."
Aides said Romney made the decision after he was presented Wednesday with an analysis of what it would take for him to beat McCain. Once it was apparent that there was virtually no way to win and that the long-term cost to the party of a drawn-out nomination contest could be significant, the former business executive and management consultant decided to withdraw.
Romney praised McCain in the speech but did not endorse him. An adviser said he has no plans to offer a formal endorsement, to preserve a role for his supporters in shaping the party platform at the Republican National Convention this summer.
Two Republicans are still running against McCain -- former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) -- but neither has a plausible chance of winning the nomination.
McCain continued working to consolidate the party yesterday. Former senator George Allen (Va.), who had backed former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.) in the Republican race, appeared at CPAC to announce his support for McCain.
"We are at war, and the preeminent role of the president is commander in chief and in my judgment the best person to be president of the United States . . . is John McCain," he said. Other GOP senators who have clashed with McCain in the past, including John Cornyn (Tex.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), got behind his bid as well.
But former House majority leader Tom DeLay (Tex.) underscored the resistance among conservatives when he said yesterday that he does not know whether he would vote for McCain against Clinton. "I'm going to be pushing the conservative cause, and let's see what John McCain does reaching out to conservatives," he told MSNBC's "Hardball." "If he continues down to be the same old John McCain that used to have disdain for the conservatives, then I'm not sure who's the most dangerous to be in the White House."
Before McCain arrived at a hotel ballroom in Washington for his speech yesterday, other speakers admonished the audience to give him a polite reception as the new leader of the party. But twice when he was introduced, many in the audience booed him at length. Others cheered and waved McCain placards in an effort to drown them out.
McCain freely acknowledged his differences with many GOP conservatives, but he made a stout defense of his 22-year record in the Senate as one that has been true to mainstream conservative principles.
"I believe today -- as I believed 25 years ago -- in small government; fiscal discipline; low taxes; a strong defense; judges who enforce, and not make, our laws; the social values that are the true source of our strength; and, generally, the steadfast defense of our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, which I have defended my entire career as God-given to the born and unborn."
Staff writer Peter Baker contributed to this report.