WASHINGTON (CNN) – Mitt Romney ended his presidential run Thursday, telling a conservative audience that continuing the race against rival John McCain would make it more likely Democrats would win the White House - and “in this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror.”
Boos rose from the audience at the mention of McCain’s name – and shocked calls of “no!” as he made his announcement. One young man in a blue sports coat grasped his head in his hands, his mouth wide open as he watched Romney on-stage.
“Barack and Hillary have made their intentions clear regarding Iraq and the war on terror. They would retreat and declare defeat,” said Romney.
“And the consequence of that would be devastating. It would mean attacks on America, launched from safe havens that make Afghanistan under the Taliban look like child’s play. About this, I have no doubt.”
The former Massachusetts governor, who conceded the mathematical odds standing between him and the nomination, told activists gathered for the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington that “I must now stand aside, for our party and our country."
As his supporters filed out of the ballroom where Romney made the announcement, many carrying his campaign signs and merchandise, a moderator mentioned McCain’s upcoming CPAC speech – drawing an immediate and sustained chorus of boos from the crowd.
“I didn’t see this coming at all,” said Pennsylvania college student Andrew Coons, holding a Romney sign under his arm. “I was completely surprised. But this was an honorable thing for him to do.”
His friend Andrew Trout added that, despite hostility from many of conservative activists at CPAC this week, John McCain had a shot at winning their support – a great deal depended, he said, on the senator’s speech later Thursday afternoon. Romney represented conservative values better than anyone else in the race, he said, but ultimately “I vote the party, not the person.”
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– CNN Associate Political Editor Rebecca Sinderbrand