After dropping out of the race for speaker of the House, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif). said he did not want to be a "distraction" from the committee investigating the attack on Americans in Benghazi. (AP)

Thirty minutes beforehand, John A. Boehner had no idea.

About 11:30 a.m. on Thursday, just before House Republicans were scheduled to choose his successor, the House speaker sat down with reporters from his native Ohio. He smoked a Camel. He talked about buying a car, a regular-guy moment to savor after nine years of being driven by the Capitol Police.

And Boehner was certain that his top deputy — the affable, attentive, unobjectionable Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) — was about to win.

There had been reasons to doubt that. Last month, McCarthy had embarrassed Republicans by suggesting that the House committee to investigate the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, was designed to score political points. Two days before, a back-bencher who opposed McCarthy circulated a vague letter asking whether any top Republicans had committed “misdeeds.” One day before, McCarthy had been formally rejected by the House’s hard-right caucus.

Still, after all that, McCarthy had the votes. Boehner was sure. After all, who else was there?

It was the soundbite heard 'round Capitol Hill: House Majority Leader and presumptive House speaker nominee Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has dropped out of the race for speaker. The Washington Post's Elise Viebeck explains the sudden news — and what happens next. (Julie Percha/The Washington Post)

“I’m confident he’ll win today,” he said, according to the account of a reporter from the Gannett News Service.

The reporters left. Boehner went to perform a ceremonial duty, opening the House for the day. Then, at 12:03 p.m., a pair of staffers pulled him into an office to tell him he was wrong.

On Thursday, Capitol Hill was still struggling to make sense of McCarthy’s sudden withdrawal from the race for speaker. It was caused, in part, by a party at war with itself. The same hard-line conservatives who hounded out Boehner had hounded out his likely successor before he had even held the speaker’s gavel.

On Thursday, McCarthy seemed like a bystander at his own big moment, so much so that he did not even warn his allies that he was about to give up.

“I’m not the one,” McCarthy told the other Republicans, who’d come expecting a vote.

He said it so softly that many members couldn’t hear him at all.

Republicans including Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif). and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) - who is running for House speaker - say what it means that Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is no longer seeking his party's nomination. (AP/C-SPAN)

Boehner had announced his resignation on Sept. 25, after four tumultuous years as speaker. His obvious successor was McCarthy, 50.

The golden era of his candidacy lasted all the way until Sept. 29.

“Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?” McCarthy told Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity, who had challenged him to state a promise that Republicans had delivered on. “But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping.”

With that comment, McCarthy seemed to cast doubt on the credibility of the Benghazi committee, which discovered that Clinton had used a private e-mail account to conduct business as secretary of state. To Democrats, he seemed to be admitting that one of Congress’s most sacred duties — to investigate crimes and failings in government — had been perverted into a lab for political-opposition research.

Two days later, McCarthy said he didn’t mean what he had said.

But it was too late for many conservatives. Part of the speaker’s job was to avoid do-overs, to go on TV and say the right thing.

“We seem to continually lose the communication battle,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who jumped into the race to oppose McCarthy. “The president has a huge bully pulpit. The Democratic nominee will obviously have a big megaphone. . . . You’ve got to win the argument in the public, then you have the ability to govern.”

Last weekend, in private, McCarthy began to worry that he didn’t have the votes.

He would need 218 votes to become speaker when the formal vote was held in late October. But no Democrats were going to back him. That meant McCarthy could afford to lose only 29 of the 247 House Republicans.

On Thursday, the GOP would hold its internal vote, a crucial test of McCarthy’s strength. In his internal projections, he wasn’t getting what he needed. “I knew I could get 200-and-some votes. But getting 218 was not easy,” McCarthy said in an interview Thursday evening.

That meant McCarthy needed to win over some of the House’s professional “no” votes, the same conservatives who had defied Boehner in votes over the debt limit, the “fiscal cliff” and the federal budget.

This was a job McCarthy had never been good at. He was a walking personification of the problem that had felled Boehner — a human symbol of the GOP’s inability to keep order.

McCarthy had recruited many of those conservatives, visited their districts, knew their families, bought them pizza. And, yet, even when he was the official party whip, they defied him.

On Tuesday night, he went back to the same people, seeking a different result.

McCarthy walked into a third-floor ballroom at the Capitol Hill Club, a bastion of the Republican establishment just south of the Capitol. Waiting for him were dozens of conservatives, including the crucial House Freedom Caucus — a group which says it has about 40 members (the exact number, and the full caucus membership list, are both secret). The Freedom Caucus had pledged to vote as a bloc if 80 percent of them could agree on one candidate.

I’m my own man, McCarthy told them. I’m not John Boehner. I’m committed to creating a more inclusive House.

He laid out plans to create a “kitchen cabinet” consisting of leaders drawn from conservative groups such as the Freedom Caucus.

But they wanted him to make specific promises. Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), the leader of the House Tea Party Caucus, asked McCarthy to publicly oppose efforts by establishment groups — the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and others — to run radio and TV ads criticizing conservatives who defied their own leaders.

McCarthy would not commit to a public pledge.

Earlier that day, Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.) — an antiwar libertarian who was often an outsider in his own party — wrote a letter to another leader of the House GOP, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.).

In the letter, Jones said any candidate for speaker should withdraw “if there are any misdeeds he has committed since joining Congress that will embarrass himself, the Republican conference or the House of Representatives.”

In interviews on Thursday, Jones said he didn’t have any hard proof of misconduct by McCarthy or any of the other candidates. Given a chance to confront McCarthy about possible misdeeds at the forum Tuesday night, Jones instead confronted him about an occasion where one of McCarthy’s staffers had been rude to one of his own staffers about the renaming of a post office.

The next day, the Freedom Caucus met to decide.

A few of them were willing to give McCarthy a chance, including some of those who McCarthy had recruited in 2010. But the vast majority couldn’t do it. Their constituents had been calling to complain that McCarthy was too much like Boehner.

That left two other choices: Chaffetz and Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.).

On paper, there was not much to recommend Webster: He was little-known in the House and was in danger of losing his seat entirely because of redistricting.

His appeal as a leader was that, in effect, he was promising not to lead them.

Elect me, he had told members, and every House member would be part of the team. No orders from on high.

They chose Webster.

If the Freedom Caucus followed through on its promise to vote as a bloc, that meant McCarthy might have lost 40 votes. Which would mean he couldn’t win.

“When they went with Webster, I kind of realized I can’t get this thing,” McCarthy said Thursday.

Still — in public and private — McCarthy insisted he would win.

“I look forward to being able to get their votes,” he said after the Freedom Caucus rejected him. “My door is always open. Every voice needs to be heard. I’m very confident we’ll all get back together.”

At 8 a.m. Thursday, there was another meeting with about 75 House members, a last sales pitch. It didn’t go well.

“The next election is the most vital one in recent history. If the liberal left keeps controlling the White House, we’re never going to retrieve the country we know and love,” Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) said he told McCarthy. He was still stuck on the Benghazi comments. “Kevin, you just had a verbal blunder that has dramatically damaged our cause. I just cannot support you for speaker — just a few days after you said something so harmful to that cause.”

As Rohrabacher recalled, McCarthy then stood up to speak.

“I’ve learned from this mistake. I hope you all will forgive me,” McCarthy said, according to Rohrabacher. “I will make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Rohrabacher said he rose again.

“Kevin, you need to not be in this race,” he said.

In the rest of the House, the morning went on as usual. In his office, Boehner was regaling the Ohio reporters with a list of his accomplishments and joking about a little wind-up monkey that he kept on his desk. It was a reminder of how he felt sometimes, always running around to keep the House going.

“You don’t have to be the monkey anymore,” Boehner said his scheduler had told him, according to an account by Deirdre Shesgreen of Gannett. The speaker had decided to give the toy to a congressman’s young daughters.

But elsewhere, McCarthy had made a decision that would change those plans. He didn’t want to be speaker if it meant being constantly worrying he’d lose the job.

The meeting began with a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. Then McCarthy got up and started talking in a normal voice, without a working microphone. “Speak up!” people yelled.

He spoke. It was quiet. “I think McCarthy just pulled out of the race. . . . ” Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.) wrote on Twitter, still unsure.

Then Boehner spoke, saying that the election was postponed and the meeting was adjourned. Later he said he would stay on until a new speaker was chosen. Winding up instead of winding down.

In the big room, the Republicans were still quiet. Everybody filed out. Later, Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) reported seeing members cry in the “cloakroom,” a space off the House floor that is off-limits to the public. “A banana republic,” he called his own party.

McCarthy left and tried to persuade Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the former vice-presidential candidate, to do what he couldn’t. “I think Ryan is the best one to bring us together. Paul Ryan has the cachet. They know of his brain work, they know he has a national following. He just has the respect,” McCarthy said.