Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania put his presidential campaign on ice Tuesday, removing the final major hurdle for Mitt Romney to win the Republican nomination and turn his full attention to a general-election bid against President Obama.
Mr. Romney told voters at a town-hall meeting in Delaware that he can now start to think about setting up a process for choosing a vice-presidential nominee, though he said he doesn't have a list of names.
Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich vowed to stay in the race, and each made an appeal to Mr. Santorum's supporters Tuesday afternoon. But with both men trailing far behind in the delegate count, analysts said, Mr. Santorum's decision marks the unofficial end of the primaries.
"This has been a good day for me," Mr. Romney said.
Mr. Santorum's exit also opened the floodgates for more party leaders to endorse Mr. Romney. Sen. Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania and Govs. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Rick Scott of Florida and Terry Branstad of Iowa threw their support to the former Massachusetts governor.
Surrounded by his family, Mr. Santorum said he spent the weekend thinking about priorities after his daughter Bella was hospitalized Friday. She suffers from Trisomy 18, a rare genetic condition that makes illnesses such as pneumonia life-threatening. She was released from the hospital Monday.
"We will suspend our campaign effective today," Mr. Santorum said at an event in Gettysburg, Pa., promising that he will continue to fight for conservative values and to help Republicans try to defeat Mr. Obama in November.
His move now sets up a scramble for Mr. Romney, who still has work to do in consolidating conservative voters' support even as he begins to try to reach out to independents who, polls suggest, have soured on him.
Mr. Santorum won nearly 28 percent of all the votes cast in the Republican primary so far, accounting for more than 3.2 million voters. Mr. Romney, in comparison, has won 4.6 million, or about 40 percent.
Michael McKenna, a Republican pollster, said he will be watching polling during the next few weeks to see what happens to those millions of Santorum supporters.
"I'm willing to bet that a pretty significant chunk of the Santorum vote is simply going to exit the process or they're going to show up and vote for the Senate and congressional races, governors races if they have them, and not hang around to vote for president," Mr. McKenna said.
He also said to watch for what key members of Mr. Santorum's organization do, and to keep an eye on high-dollar donors, including billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who was backing Mr. Gingrich's bid, and Foster Friess, a Santorum backer whose net worth has been estimated at more than a half-billion dollars. If they begin to back Mr. Romney, it will signal that the Republican Party is uniting around him.
On Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Friess told Politico that while he was still considering the details of how to best back Mr. Romney, "I'm obviously going to be of help in whatever way I can."
One pro-life group, the Susan B. Anthony List, said its activists had been energized by Mr. Santorum's bid, but that they remain committed to defeating Mr. Obama in November — which could provide a boost for Mr. Romney.
Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist, said he thinks Mr. Romney will do what he needs to do to appeal to his base, just as Mr. Obama has done in his party.
"Now the question is how do they pick up the independent votes — the so-called swing voters," Mr. Manley said. "In the end, I think Romney's going to lock in his Republican base, but I think that's not going to be enough to get him elected. He's going to have to appeal to moderates, independents and swing voters, and I don't think he's capable of doing that."
One model for Mr. Romney is 2004, when Democratic nominee John Kerry emerged from a fractious primary and quickly consolidated the party's base behind him as those voters rallied to push incumbent President George W. Bush to a photo-finish election in November.
But Mr. McKenna, the Republican pollster, said this year's situation is different because the Republicans are still racked by an internal revolt against their own former leader, Mr. Bush, in the form of the tea party movement.
"John Kerry wasn't running against Bill Clinton; John Kerry was running towards Bill Clinton. It's an important difference. Romney is, without a doubt, the lineal descendant of the Bush dynasty," Mr. McKenna said.
Mr. Santorum leaves having won primaries and caucuses in 11 states — second to Mr. Romney — and, by his own count, having won more counties than Republicans in the rest of the field combined.
He ducked out two weeks before voters in his home state of Pennsylvania were slated to go to the polls in a race Mr. Romney appeared poised to win.
Still left in the Republican nomination battle are Mr. Gingrich, who won primaries in Georgia and South Carolina but has stalled since then, and Mr. Paul, who has yet to win any state.
Mr. Gingrich on Tuesday made an appeal for Mr. Santorum's supporters.
"I am committed to staying in this race all the way to Tampa so that the conservative movement has a real choice," Mr. Gingrich said.
Mr. Paul's campaign chairman, Jesse Benton, issued a statement saying Mr. Paul is "now the last — and real — conservative alternative to Mitt Romney" in the race.
Mr. Romney, having swept primaries in Maryland, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia last week, had already turned his attention to Mr. Obama and the general election. Mr. Santorum's exit legitimizes that decision.
"Senator Santorum is an able and worthy competitor, and I congratulate him on the campaign he ran," Mr. 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."
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