1 of 2
Jonathan Ernst, Getty Images
GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney waves after telling a Conservative Political Action Committee convention on Thursday that he is halting his campaign.

WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney dropped out of the presidential race Thursday in front of a sympathetic crowd of conservatives, putting an end to his bid to become the first Mormon to win the White House.

"This isn't an easy decision. I hate to lose," Romney told members of the Conservative Political Action Conference, who were expecting to hear just another campaign speech at their annual convention.

His surprising announcement came just two days after GOP front-runner Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., won a majority of delegates up for grabs on Super Tuesday, making it virtually impossible for Romney to win the nomination.

Romney said he got out now to help his party keep control of the White House in a time of war. He said Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama "would retreat and declare defeat" while McCain would do "whatever it takes" to succeed in Iraq.

"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 and probably make it easier for Senators Clinton or Obama to win," Romney said.

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

That was a complete turnaround from Romney's election night pledge on Tuesday to keep fighting all the way to the Republican National Convention in September — and to the White House in November.

He apparently realized it was time to call it quits after meeting with his senior campaign team in Boston Wednesday to consider his options after his disappointing performance on Tuesday. He has less than half as many delegates as McCain.

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

Zwick, a Utahn who first worked for Romney as an aide during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, said "at the end of the day, the final decision was made by Mitt and Ann," Romney's 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." But leaving now gives him some goodwill with the party, paving the way for a future presidential run, possibly in 2012.

Campaign spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom said the team "saw a pathway to the nomination, but it would have been difficult."

Romney was scheduled to speak in Baltimore Thursday night 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 Thursday came as a surprise.

Sure enough, Romney supporters in the Washington, D.C., audience were stunned to learn he was suspending his candidacy.

Craig Hodges of Anchorage, Alaska, said he was sad to see Romney drop out of the race, but if he had to do it, CPAC was the right place. Hodges said conservatives would "have felt short-changed" if Romney had picked a different venue.

Utahns, who claim Romney as a "favorite-son" candidate, may have been the most disappointed. Besides running the '02 Olympics, Romney is, like a majority of Utahns, a member of The Church of Jesus of Latter-day Saints.

Just how beloved Romney is in Utah was clear Tuesday, when he won the state's Republican primary with 90 percent of the vote. Utahns, who gave $5.2 million last year to Romney, are among the biggest contributors to his campaign, second only to California.

"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," said Utah Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican and a Mormon who backed Romney.

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."

Another Romney supporter, Utah Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, said, "Obviously, we're all disappointed that Mitt Romney would withdraw from the presidential race" and credited him with putting "to bed the Mormon issue."

Utahns were especially interested in following Romney's campaign to see how he was being treated as a Mormon candidate. Although he is not the first LDS Church member to run for the presidency, he appeared to have the best chance of winning.

"It was a factor, but I don't think it was the overriding, decisive factor," said Nathan Oman, a law professor at William & Mary in Virginia who researches Mormon issues. "I think a different Mormon candidate might be able to win."

Oman said the bigger problem Romney faced was an inability to connect with voters. "Something about his demeanor didn't connect with people. I have a friend who calls him the 'CEO robot from Jupiter,"' Oman said, suggesting Romney came across as too stiff.

Kelly Patterson, head of Brigham Young University's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said Romney was hurt by having an evangelical in the race, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist minister.

"That was an issue," Patterson said. "Part of the enthusiasm for Huckabee is that he was evangelical and (Romney) was not. It's not the same thing as actually voting against a Mormon."

Huckabee remained in the race Thursday but is not seen as a contender since he trailed even further behind McCain than Romney despite several key wins in the South.

McCain's campaign made it clear in an internal memo that there was no way for Romney to win. McCain senior strategist Charlie Black wrote that 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 percent 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 on Thursday showed McCain with 714 total delegates, Romney with 286 and Huckabee with 186. It takes 1,191 delegates to secure the GOP nomination.

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."

John Miller, a meat-packing company executive who lives in Utah and is one of Romney's top fundraisers, said Utahns were key to transforming Romney from an unknown candidate to a contender in the past year.

"People in Utah, just across the board, opened their checkbooks and supported Mitt," he said. "If the rest of the country knew Mitt like Utahns know Mitt, I think Mitt would be the president."

E-mail: suzanne@desnews.com; lisa@desnews.com