Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was one of several obscure hawks who have considered running for the White House this cycle, wagering that turmoil in the Middle East could lead Republican primary voters to rally behind a candidate who could articulate the need for a well-funded U.S. military at home and an assertive presence abroad.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a critic of President Obama’s worldview, has been moving closer to launching his own bid. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), who has deep ties to federal law enforcement officials, has taken frequent trips to New Hampshire, which hosts the first-in-the-nation primary.
But Graham and King, like Bolton, have struggled to get traction, lagging far behind in the polls as leading Republican hopefuls who largely share their positions on foreign policy and national security, such as Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Gov. Scott Walker (Wis.), have drawn big crowds and donations.
Bolton's announcement that he would forgo the contest came after months of appearances in early primary states, and efforts to raise funds for a possible bid.
But in a conference call with reporters Thursday, Bolton said he'd come to the conclusion a campaign would not be “feasible” due to the likely intense competition from an already crowded field of GOP contenders that includes well-known senators and seasoned governors.
“I looked at this and I’m not happy with the decision, but you have to be a realist about it,” Bolton said.
The move by Bolton, 66, does little to rupture the early dynamics in the Republican race. His bookish persona and advocacy for a more muscular foreign policy have made him a singular figure at party gatherings this year, but he has never become a political force or favorite of activists.
Another obstacle for lesser known hawks is the way Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a prominent non-interventionist, has campaigned for president. He has called for an increase in defense spending and effectively diminished his longtime role as a foil for Bolton and others.
In an interview Thursday, Bolton said he deliberated for over a year about whether to run, creating a political-action committee and an allied super PAC during that time. Those groups have raised more than $7 million as Bolton has traveled the country and donated to dozens of GOP candidates.
Moving forward, Bolton said he would continue to use those organizations as his political vehicle. “With the ambiguity about whether I’ll run gone, I can devote my attention them,” he said, envisioning a mix of ads, social media, and a focus on critiquing the record of Hillary Rodham Clinton, his former classmate at Yale Law School.
“My only regret is that I won’t have a chance to debate her in the fall of 2016,” Bolton said of the 2016 Democratic frontrunner. He has previously described her acidly as a “radical” and “unfit” to serve as president — a hard line rarely taken by top-tier Republicans, but cheered by the GOP base.
On social issues, Bolton is a relative moderate. He holds anti-abortion views but supports same-sex marriage. On Thursday, Bolton said Republicans should engage with gay voters as they work to expand the party’s reach.
Counseling presidential candidates is also part of Bolton’s agenda, though he declined Thursday to name who has sought him out in recent weeks for policy guidance. Earlier this year, he was spotted dining on Capitol Hill with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who entered the presidential race in March.
A Fox News commentator, Bolton is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, where he has been perched since serving as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during George W. Bush’s presidency.
Bolton previously flirted with running for president ahead of the 2012 cycle, but decided against it and eventually endorsed Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee.