Chafee bowed out with a plea for “an end to the endless wars and the beginning of a new era for the United States and humanity.”
“Do we want to be remembered as a bomber of weddings and hospitals?” Chafee said. “Or do we want to be remembered as peacemakers, as pioneers of a more harmonious world?
Chafee’s exit further narrows a Democratic field led by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) that also includes former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley.
Vice President Joe Biden announced Wednesday that he would not make a late entry into the race, and former Virginia senator Jim Webb dropped out of the Democratic race earlier this week, leaving open the possibility of an independent bid.
Clinton, Sanders and O’Malley were all scheduled to address the same DNC forum in Washington later Friday morning.
Speaking at the forum, DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz called Chafee “a class act” and said she looks forward to him continuing to campaign for Democrats.
Chafee was polling at less than 1 percent in recent national polls and averaging less than 1 percent in recent polls from Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two nominating states, according to Real Clear Politics.
Chafee, a former Republican, made a splash in the run-up to the launch of his bid, saying in an interview that Clinton’s 2002 Senate vote to authorize military action in Iraq should disqualify her from becoming commander in chief.
Coverage of his campaign announcement in June was dominated by his embrace of the metric system — "it doesn’t take long before 34 degrees is hot" — and Chafee never seemed to get on track after that.
He was largely a bystander in the first Democratic debate this month in Las Vegas, and through September, he had raised only $44,506 for his candidacy. According to Democracy in Action, a watchdog group, Chafee spent 35 days campaigning in New Hampshire, more than any other candidate. Visits to states that were further from his native Rhode Island were more scarce — just four in Iowa and two in South Carolina.
Chafee's presidential race was the least successful of his career — a career twice boosted by happenstance. In 1999, when Rhode Island Sen. John Chafee died, the state's Republican governor handed the seat to his son, Lincoln. By his own admission, the new senator (and former mayor of Warwick, R.I.) was befuddled by the job, telling CNN's Anderson Cooper last week that he voted for a major banking reform bill because he'd "just arrived at the Senate" and thought he'd get some do-overs. He won a full term in 2000 even after admitting to some youthful and regrettable experiments with drugs.
"Now when I hear someone talking about a Rhode Island politician whose father was a senator, who got to Washington based on his family name, used cocaine, and wasn't very smart, I know there's only a 50-50 chance it's me," then-Rep. Patrick Kennedy, the Democratic son of Edward M. Kennedy, joked at a 2001 Providence political roast.
Meanwhile, Chafee established himself as perhaps the most liberal member of the Republican conference. He opposed the Iraq War, and several of President George W. Bush's policy initiatives. In 2006 he faced a stiff, Club for Growth-backed primary challenge from the conservative Cranston, R.I., mayor, Steve Laffey, who considered Chafee a lightweight.
"This guy's a U.S. senator?" Laffey recalled in his memoir, "Primary Mistake." "They can't all be like this, or we're really in trouble!"
Chafee, backed by national Republicans, won the primary but lost a general election to now-Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). He took a teaching job at Brown University, but made a surprise return to politics in 2010 as an independent candidate for governor. Chafee was running a strong third when the Democratic nominee, Frank Caprio, made a fateful gaffe. Told that President Obama would visit the state but not endorse him, Caprio said, "He can take his endorsement and really shove it as far as I'm concerned." His poll numbers cratered overnight, and liberal voters flocked to Chafee, who narrowly won.
It was not a recipe for a successful term. Chafee, who took office near the end of the Great Recession, was a distant and unpopular governor, deciding against reelection after polling showed him losing to any serious candidate. His exit from the political scene was welcomed; his decision to run for president inspired a baffled editorial from Rhode Island's biggest newspaper.
"His administration was marked by his persistent refusal to understand or address the state’s economic problems; a bizarre crusade against the use of the words “Christmas tree” to describe the state’s Christmas tree; prickly denunciations of people who challenged his policies; his hustling of a top aide, Richard Licht, into a judgeship, in violation of the spirit of the state’s revolving-door law; and a series of actions that seemed designed only to make life harder for the state’s struggling middle class," wrote the Providence Journal. "The idea that such a dismal record in an executive position would be a recommendation for the presidency (of the United States!) seems preposterous."
On the campaign trail, Chafee leaned more on his record as a naysaying senator than on his four years as governor. In what will have been his only debate performance, he went negative against Clinton for her Iraq War vote. The day after, when CNN asked when he would get out of the race, Chafee suggested that "the establishment does not want to hear an antiwar voice."
Yet Chafee strongly hinted at his exit from the race Thursday night with a tweet that said: "I look forward to speaking at DNC Women's Forum tomorrow morning. I'll address my future in the campaign there.”