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* Mitt Romney dropped out of the presidential race. The former Massachusetts governor, once considered the leading candidate in the race for the Republican nomination, said he wanted to clear the field for the current front-runner, U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), to stop Democrats from taking the White House.

Romney said a continued fight would damage Republican chances and risk allowing a Democrat to withdraw from Iraq.

His campaign foundered with twin challenges from moderates who strongly favored McCain and Southern conservatives backing former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. “I hate to lose,” Romney said Thursday at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where he was greeted with cheers. He had become the favored candidate of the Republican Party establishment.

“Because I love America in this time of war, I feel I must now step aside for our party and our country,” he said. Romney had attracted strong Republican Jewish support, especially because of his tough line on confronting Iran – one he outlined in a speech he made a year ago in person to the Herzliya Conference in Israel. Still, among Jewish voters he was no match for former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who dropped out of the race last month and endorsed McCain. In his CPAC speech, Romney quoted Israeli President Shimon Peres: “America is unique in the sacrifice it has made for liberty.”

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