Santorum exits presidential race

Rick Santorum dropped out of the presidential race Tuesday afternoon, essentially guaranteeing Mitt Romney the GOP nomination.

Santorum announced that he is suspending his campaign at an event in his home state of Pennsylvania — his first public appearance following the release of his daughter Bella from the hospital and after he took a break from the campaign trail for a long Easter weekend.

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"While this presidential race is over for me, and we will suspend our campaign today, we are not done fighting," he said from Gettysburg, Pa., flanked by his family.

The former senator thanked his supporters for what he called the campaign's "improbable" success. But Santorum's poll numbers were dropping ahead of Pennsylvania's April 24 primary, with Romney throwing the full weight of his campaign into a push to win there.

A Pennsylvania loss would have been a humiliating defeat for Santorum, especially since he argued that his last loss — he lost his seat by 18 points to Sen. Bob Casey (D) in 2008 — was because of a general unpopularity with Republicans at the time.

Santorum cited Bella's recent hospitalization as part of his thought process on suspending his campaign.

"She is a fighter and she is doing exceptionally well and she is back with us and our family," he said. "It did cause us to think as the role that we have as parents and with the rest of our family. This was a time for prayer and thought, this weekend, just like it was when we decided to get into the race."


Before the speech, Santorum called Romney to inform the former Massachusetts governor that he was suspending his campaign, but he did not mention Romney or his other competitors in his announcement.

"Senator Santorum is an able and worthy competitor, and I congratulate him on the campaign he ran," Romney said in a statement. "He has proven himself to be an important voice in our party and in the nation. We both recognize that what is most important is putting the failures of the last three years behind us and setting America back on the path to prosperity."

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus commended Santorum's decision to suspend his campaign, pushing the notion that Republicans were uniting to defeat President Obama. 

"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," Priebus said in a statement. "Rick has already reached out to say he will be part of the team effort to ensure Republican victories up and down the ballot in November."

Santorum National Communications Director Hogan Gidley said that Romney requested a sit down with Santorum to discuss an endorsement.

"I know that Gov. Romney has reached out to Rick Santorum to have a meeting about a potential endorsement and Rick is receptive to the meeting but no plans have been made at this time and that's something that we'll continue to discuss as the days go by," Gidley said on MSNBC.

Newt Gingrich said he had "a great, great respect for how hard Rick worked" and kept up his attacks on Romney.

"I think it makes it clearer that there's a conservative, named Newt Gingrich, and there's Mitt Romney," he said on Mike Huckabee's radio show.

Gingrich made a plea for Santorum-backers to join his campaign.

"I humbly ask Sen. Santorum’s supporters to visit Newt.org to review my conservative record and join us," he said.

Rep. Ron Paul's campaign also congratulated Santorum and made a pitch for his supporters.

“Congratulations to Senator Santorum on running such a spirited campaign," Jesse Benton, the campaign's chairman, said in a statement. "Dr. Paul is now the last – and real – conservative alternative to Mitt Romney.  We plan to continue running hard, secure delegates, and press the fight for limited, constitutional government in Tampa."

Santorum's decision came as a surprise to many of his Pennsylvania supporters, including those in his home county. Jeff Smith, the chairman of the Butler County Republican Committee, said he got a call Monday night from Santorum supporters who were setting up area captains to work on behalf of the candidate ahead of the primary.

"Here on the ground, the troops are still ready to go," said Smith.

A slew of primary losses made it harder for Santorum to catch Romney in the delegate count; the announcement follows a meeting the former Pennsylvania senator held with conservative leaders last week to discuss his path forward.

Gingrich, the former House Speaker, and Paul, the Texas congressman, remain in the race, but they, too, are unlikely to catch Romney in the race for delegates. It takes 1,144 to clinch the GOP nomination. The former Massachusetts governor has 661 delegates, according to a count by The Associated Press. Santorum has 285, Gingrich has 136 and Paul has 51.

Santorum's battle was an uphill one from the beginning. He was considered a dark-horse candidate at the beginning of the 2012 Republican campaign cycle but his surprise showing in the Iowa caucuses gave his campaign a surge of attention.

He fought to become the conservative favorite in the race, stressing his position on social issues and working to appeal to the GOP's evangelical base.

But even though he won a number of primary contests, he was never able to deliver Romney a severe blow by gaining a victory in a delegate-heavy state. He also struggled to win over influential endorsements outside of the conservative base and bring in the money needed for a successful campaign.

—Josh Lederman contributed.

Last updated at 3:35 p.m.