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Defeat Unusual for Romney

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

The Republican presidential contest is all but over and Senator John McCain is the likely nominee. McCain spoke yesterday to a conservative group in Washington, D.C., a group he's kept at arm's length in the past.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): I hope you'll pardon my absence last year and understand that I intended no personal insult to any of you. I was merely - I was merely preoccupied with the business of trying to escape the distinction of pre-season frontrunner for the Republican nomination, which I'm sure some of you observed I managed to do in fairly short order. But now I again have the privilege of that distinction, and this time I would prefer to hold on to it for a little while.

MONTAGNE: Senator John McCain is likely to hold on this time, now that his chief rival for the nomination formally ended his campaign. Massachusetts Governor - former Governor Mitt Romney left the race after falling far behind McCain in the delegate race on Super Tuesday. Romney's departure marks a rare defeat for the man who made his fortune in business and achieved fame with his rescue of the 2002 Winter Olympics. Too often in the presidential race, though, Romney was forced to settle for a silver medal, as he put it. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Romney announced he was getting out of the presidential race in Washington at a gathering of conservatives. He said it was thanks to their help that a little known former governor had won more than four million primary votes. But, Romney said, much as his supporters would like him to keep fighting for the nomination, staying in the race now would only help the Democrats.

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Republican Governor, Massachusetts): If this were only about me, I'd go on, but it's never been only about me. I entered this race - I entered this race because I love America, and because I love America in this time of war I feel I have to now stand aside for our party and for our country.

(Soundbite of boos)

HORSLEY: Among those booing Romney's decision was Michele Dettweiler(ph), a stay-at-home mom from Virginia. She says Romney inspired her to get actively involved in politics for the first time in 20 years.

Ms. MICHELE DETTWEILER: I'm just heartsick today that we conservatives didn't rally around him sooner.

HORSLEY: Romney had counted on support from social and fiscal conservatives in Iowa and New Hampshire to score some early victories and ride that momentum to the nomination. But at every turn he found someone in his way. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses, siphoning off support from a large number of Christian evangelicals.

Huckabee had campaigned in Iowa accusing Romney of being a latecomer to the social conservatives' cause.

Mr. MIKE HUCKABEE (Former Republican Governor, Arkansas; Presidential Candidate): Some people when they run for office, they'll come up with a whole bunch of new views that they just decided to get because it seems like it might work in Iowa. Some of us come to you with the views that we've had because they're convictions. They're not political conveniences.

HORSLEY: Romney's change of heart on issues like abortion and gay rights did leave lingering doubts about his authenticity. While some conservatives embraced his newfound commitment, New Hampshire voter Roberta Barrett found it hard to trust him.

Ms. ROBERTA BARRETT (Voter, New Hampshire): Let's see, let's be tactful. I think when he was governor of Massachusetts he was a very liberal Republican. Now he's trying to be a very conservative Republican. It doesn't work. And I just don't think we want somebody to buy the election.

HORSLEY: Romney's personal fortune enabled his campaign to spend $86 million last year, more than twice as much as John McCain. Forty cents of every dollar came from Romney's own pocket, and as outside contributions dwindled, he put more of his own money in. Here he is speaking in late September.

Mr. ROMNEY: This for me is a race I'm investing in at least as much as everybody else, probably a lot more. And I'm not beholden to any particular group for getting me in this race or for getting me elected. My family, that's the only group I'm really beholden to, their willingness to let their inheritance slip away dollar by dollar.

HORSLEY: Despite all that spending, Romney managed only a second-place finish in the New Hampshire primary. It was another disappointing silver. Romney did win the Michigan primary the following week thanks in part to strong family ties. He was born there and his father was a popular governor. Romney also stressed his business know-how as a cure for Michigan's struggling economy, and he continued to hammer away at that economic theme in that hotly contested Florida primary.

Mr. ROMNEY: I've been in the real economy, I will use that experience to keep America's economy the strongest in the world.

(Soundbite of cheering)

HORSLEY: McCain won Florida though and its prize of 57 delegates. By then it was time for Romney to make some economic decisions of his own. He continued to campaign through Super Tuesday but he didn't invest the huge sums in television advertising that he had in Iowa, New Hampshire and Florida. By the time Tuesday's votes were counted, McCain had a virtually insurmountable lead in the race for delegates, and Romney, the businessman who always says study the numbers, could see that for him they didn't add up.

Scott Horsley, NPR News.

Hillary Clinton recently loaned her presidential campaign $5 million, while Mitt Romney poured about $40 million into his race by the end. You can read about the successes and follies of personal fortunes and political campaigns at NPR.org/elections. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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United States & World Morning Edition
Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.