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VIDEO: View Romney's Entire SpeechAP Photo / Evan Vucci
Richard Piatt and Andrew Adams reporting
Utah Republicans love Mitt Romney--to the tune of 90 percent of the vote in this week's primary. But today, Romney suspended his campaign for the presidency. The decision now leaves John McCain the clear frontrunner as the Republican nominee.
The sharpest words Romney and McCain exchanged were over a timetable to withdraw from Iraq. McCain claimed Romney supported one. Romney said no. Today, ironically, it was Romney's concern about leaving Iraq too early that led to him yielding to McCain in the race for president.
It was at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that Romney bowed out. But his audience wasn't pleased. Amid moans and ‘boos' from the crowd he said, "this isn't an easy decision. I hate to lose."
This conference gave Romney an opening to step aside graciously. But just two days after Super Tuesday, and his claims that he was staying in the race, Romney now says he's more interested in a Republican victory in November. The reason, he says, is the war in Iraq.
"If this were only about me, I'd go on. But it's never been about me. I entered this race because I love America. And because I love America, in this time of war I feel I must now stand aside for our party and for our country," Romney said.
While Romney didn't move to endorse McCain, he left the door open. In areas like Utah, that future nod could mean a lot. "The most important person in the world for McCain is Mitt Romney. If Romney will endorse John McCain and back him on things other than his approach to terrorism and the war, that will repair and mend bridges with the communities that are nervous and upset about McCain," said Kirk Jowers, of the Hinckley Institute of Politics.
Even though the two fought bitterly about McCain's claim Romney supports a timetable to withdraw, Romney today called for Republican unity. "We cannot let the next president of the United States retreat in the face of evil extremism," Romney said.
The Utahns who voted for Romney on Tuesday are still Romney delegates, since he has "suspended" not "quit" his campaign. Differences within the Republican Party will be sorted out at this summer's national convention.
Utah pollster Dan Jones said the announcement came as somewhat of a surprise even to him, but he believes Romney is simply preparing for the future.
"What he really announced today is that he's going to run in 2012," Jones said. "He's trying to say, 'I'm a team player and I want to not only get the moderates, but the conservatives.' ... He was trying to prove he was more conservative than [Mike] Huckabee or McCain, but it didn't come across, and so he's going to have four years to prove that."
Today's announcement ends a campaign that has lasted almost exactly one year. It began last February in his native state of Michigan and was fueled by $40 million dollars of his own personal fortune.
Romney's strategy was to build early momentum with wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, and while he did garner a lot of name recognition, and was considered by some as an early frontrunner, he ultimately lost in both of those states and never regained frontrunner momentum.
He won seven states on Super Tuesday but lost in New York, California, and other delegate-rich primaries.
His campaign had two major hurdles: charges that he had flip-flopped on conservative issues like gay rights and abortion and voter concerns about his religious affiliation as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.