LM Otero, Associated Press
GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney arrives at his campaign headquarters in Boston.

WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney dropped out of the presidential race today before a crowd of conservatives and supporters in Washington, DC., saying that staying in would only make it easier for the Democrats to win the White House in November.

"This isn't an easy decision, I hate to lose," Romney said.

He dropped out just two days after Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., won the majority of delegates up for grabs on Super Duper Tuesday, making it virtually impossible for Romney to win.

"If I fight on in my campaign, all the way to the convention — I want you to know I have given this a lot of thought — it would forestall the launch of a national campaign (for the eventual Republican nominee) and probably make it easier for Sens. Clinton or Obama to win," Romney told the Conservative Political Action Conference Thursday.

"Frankly, in this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror."

Romney will meet with his congressional supporters — including Republican members of Utah's congressional delegation — today on Capitol Hill and then head back to Massachusetts. Romney won Utah's GOP primary Tuesday with 90 percent of the vote, and Utah voters are the second highest contributors to his campaign.

Campaign spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom said the former Massachusetts governor, who also ran the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, will get some "well-deserved rest" and has no immediate plans.

Romney was scheduled to speak in Baltimore tonight at a Republican fundraiser but that appearance was canceled. Campaign advisers suggested it had only been added to the schedule to ensure Romney's announcement today came as a surprise.

Romney met with his senior campaign team in Boston Wednesday to consider his options after a disappointing performance on Super Tuesday. He had hoped to win California, but lost that state and eight others to McCain. Romney won Utah, Massachusetts and five other states.

"I was holding out hope," one participant in that meeting, Romney's national finance director, Spencer Zwick said. "But Super Tuesday changed some things."

Zwick, a Utahn who first worked for Romney as an aide during the 2002 Olympics, said "at the end of the day, the final decision was made by Mitt and Ann," his wife of 39 years. "It is a sad day. It's tough. It's tough," Zwick said. "Nobody likes to say it's better to step aside."

Fehrnstrom said at the meeting, participants "saw a pathway to the nomination but it would have been difficult." Romney addressed his staff and then went to his home in nearby Belmont to write the CPAC speech that became his farewell.

Romney has been campaigning across the country since announcing his race for the Republican nomination in Michigan a year ago. A member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints like the majority of Utahns, he was wildly popular in the Beehive State.

"I think there is some pride that comes with those of the LDS faith who see one of their own having this kind of success," Utah Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican and a Mormon who backed Romney, said.

Herbert said Romney started the race with little national name recognition but still managed to come "very close to becoming the party's nominee ... A lot of people a year ago would have said it was impossible."

Romney supporters in the Washington, D.C., audience were surprised and disappointed to learn he was dropping out.

Kristen Luidhardt of Greenwood, Ind., said she would "grin and bear it" in supporting McCain. The former Fred Thompson supporter had switched to Romney because he is a conservative.

Robert Owens, a student at Penn State, said he disagreed with Romney and saw there was still a chance he could win. Owens said McCain has won more liberal states and the upcoming contests could have lead to a Romney win.

But the math speaks differently, as McCain's campaign has been pointing out. McCain's campaign strategists Charlie Black sent out a memo Tuesday, saying it would be impossible for Romney to come back.

"For Mitt Romney to match our delegate count, he would have to win more than 50% of those delegates," according to Black's memo. "And, he would have to win nearly every single delegate still available in order to become the nominee. And, many of these contests are proportional, so Mitt will have to win by big margins in many states to garner every last delegate."

Black pointed out that McCain ended Super Tuesday with 750 delegates unofficially. CNN's unofficial count today showed McCain with 714 total delegates and Romney with 286. It takes 1,191 delegates to secure the GOP nomination.

"With Mike Huckabee still a factor in this race, particularly in the South, and many contests moving forward proportional, the math is nearly impossible for Mitt Romney to win the nomination," according to the memo.

Craig Hodges of Anchorage, Alaska, said he was sad to see Romney drop out of the race, but if he had to do it, giving the speech at CPAC was the right idea.

Hodges said if Romney spoke at today's conference and then dropped out of the campaign later, the conservatives would "have felt short-changed."

Romney said in his speech that, "If this were only about me, I'd go on. But it's never been only 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."

Zwick said that sentiment was sincere. "When he says that he cares more about the security of the country, that's from the heart," Zwick said. "He genuinely feels like this is different than most presidential races in that we are at war.

"That was a factor in his decision. If the stakes were just about the Republican party, I think he would have stayed in."

Republican front-runner McCain later addressed CPAC.