Rick Santorum drops out of GOP race

WASHINGTON — Rick Santorum, the staunch social conservative who climbed from the basement of the polls to literally give Republican front-runner Mitt Romney a run for his money in the party’s unpredictable presidential race, has ended his campaign.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum comforts his son Peter as he leaves the podium after announcing he is suspending his candidacy for the presidency

WASHINGTON — Rick Santorum, the staunch social conservative who climbed from the basement of the polls to literally give Republican front-runner Mitt Romney a run for his money in the party’s unpredictable presidential race, has ended his campaign.

“While this presidential race is over for me, and we will suspend our campaign effective today, we are not done fighting,” Santorum said in Gettysburg, Pa.

“We are going to continue to fight for the Americans who stood up and gave us that air under our wings.”

Santorum, who was facing a tough battle against Romney in his home state of Pennsylvania in the Republican primary on April 24, launched a tenacious campaign against the Mormon millionaire to become his No. 1 threat in the race.

The former Pennsylvania senator’s departure from the race all but assures Romney will get the nomination. Santorum was the only candidate who stood a chance of preventing Romney from amassing the 1,144 delegates needed to seal the nomination before the Republican convention in August.

Romney praised Santorum in a statement, calling him an “able and worthy competitor” and an “important voice” in the party.

The one-time Massachusetts governor vastly outspent Santorum in several close races in key swing states, dropping money bombs that created no shortage of bad blood between the two campaigns. Santorum did not endorse Romney as he announced he was leaving the race.

But his successes against Romney stunned observers, especially given he lost his 2006 re-election bid as a Pennsylvania senator by more than 17 percentage points and entered the Republican race as a serious dark horse.

A devout Catholic with a fondness for sweater vests, Santorum said he made his decision over the weekend after discussing his prospects with his close-knit family.

Santorum had taken off Easter weekend to spend time with one of his seven children — three-year-old Bella, who’d recently been hospitalized. The girl suffers from a genetic disorder known as Trisomy 18.

Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, called Santorum’s decision to drop out of the race “commendable.”

“He has decided to put his country, party, and desire to defeat President Obama ahead of any personal ambition. I applaud his decision and congratulate him on the campaign he has run,” he said in a statement.

His remarks seemed aimed at Newt Gingrich, in particular, who has steadfastly refused to exit the race despite conceding that Romney will be the likely nominee.

Gingrich, in fact, said in a statement Tuesday he was even more committed to remaining in the race now that Santorum has withdrawn.

“I am committed to staying in this race all the way to Tampa so that the conservative movement has a real choice,” he said, while appealing to Santorum’s supporters to throw their weight behind him.

Ron Paul, the libertarian congressman from Texas, is also still in the race and not expected to drop out.

Santorum, who defied odds and shocked Romney by winning a trio of Midwest states in February, was the favoured candidate of the social conservatives and evangelicals of the Republican primary base.

He went on to win three southern states with large evangelical contingents. Those victories were devastating to Gingrich, who represented the state of Georgia for two decades as a U.S. congressman and believed he could sweep the Deep South.

But Santorum was unable to unite Tea Party activists, social conservatives and evangelicals in regions beyond the south in a coalition that could propel him to victory, despite his insistence he represented a true conservative alternative to Romney.

He frequently found himself in hot water on issues ranging from birth control to his insistence that U.S. President Barack Obama was a “snob” for wanting young Americans to attend college.

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