WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney spent millions of his fortune trying to convince Republican conservatives that he was one of them, but because he never could, he suspended his campaign for the White House Thursday, effectively ending it.
The former Massachusetts governor was the victim of his political past. He campaigned as the heir to Ronald Reagan, the firm anti-abortion candidate and the race's most devoted tax-cutter.
But he couldn't escape his record: Before and during his stint as governor, he didn't register as a Republican for a time, sympathized with abortion- and gay-rights advocates, and raised fees and increased the tax burden on businesses in the state by hundreds of millions of dollars.
"He took all the right conservative positions during the campaign, but he didn't convince people that the '08 Romney was different than the Massachusetts Romney," said John J. Pitney Jr., professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College in California.
Romney brandished his conservative credentials to the end, telling the Conservative Political Action Committee conference in Washington Thursday that he had to withdraw so that Republicans could mount the most effective fall campaign against Democrats eager to get out of Iraq.
"If I fight on in my campaign, all the way to the convention ...I'd forestall the launch of a national campaign and make it more likely that Senator Clinton or Obama would win, frankly," Romney said. "And in this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror."
The decision, he said, wasn't easy.
"If this were only about me, I'd go on. But it's never been only about me," Romney argued. "I entered this race because I love America, and because I love America, in this time of war, I feel I must now stand aside, for our party and for our country."
Activists shouted, "No," and Romney smiled and gently told them: "You guys are great."
He had a hard time, though, rousing Republican voters around the country. He failed to win a single key state, though he won his native state of Michigan last month and seven secondary contests on Tuesday.
In the critical battlegrounds, he usually got what he called the silver medal. Romney finished a distant second in Iowa, second again in New Hampshire — where he had a vacation home and was a familiar neighbor — fourth in South Carolina, second in Florida, and perhaps the final blow, a distant second to John McCain in Tuesday's California primary.
Too often, said Pitney, "the race between Romney and McCain became plastic versus steel."
Romney found himself the victim of political math: McCain holds about a 3-to-1 lead in delegates, a gap that will be all but impossible to overcome.
By suspending his campaign, Romney maintains control of his delegates — in case McCain stumbles or a GOP convention dominated by conservatives rejects the Arizona senator.
Candidates in the past have taken a similar approach, and it's never worked, so Romney's campaign is effectively over.
Romney, a successful venture capitalist who's also credited with saving the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, spent an estimated $17 million of his fortune on the race. But the master salesman could never overcome his record, and his strategy seemed to keep shifting to fit his immediate needs.
Early in the campaign, he stumbled when he announced that he'd bought a lifetime membership in the National Rifle Association — despite expressing support for an assault-rifle ban and the Brady gun-control law when he ran for the U. S. Senate in 1994.
As the 2008 campaign began, he declared himself "firmly pro-life," but during his earlier state campaigns, he'd told voters "abortion should be safe and legal in this country."
Romney also tried to claim that he was the Republican Party's legitimate, logical heir to Reagan, saying: "I take inspiration from the strength Ronald Reagan talked about. It was his view that the right way to overcome challenges was for the country to strengthen itself."
But when he ran for the Senate in 1994, he'd said: "I was an independent during the time of Reagan-Bush. I'm not trying to return to Reagan-Bush."
Romney for a time was registered as "unenrolled," or unaffiliated with any political party. In 1992, he voted in the Democratic primary for former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas, explaining later that he wanted to vote twice against Bill Clinton.
As the campaign progressed, Romney found himself thwarted not only by voter skepticism, but also by some unexpected competition. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee became the darling of many Christian conservatives, and he surged to a win in Iowa.
Romney tried hard to derail Huckabee, attacking him in ad after ad as too prone to tax increases, eager to coddle criminals and sympathetic to undocumented immigrants.
It didn't work, and Romney made his last stand in California. He pushed hard, using all his usual devices. He met with a family at their kitchen table in Long Beach. He returned for a last-minute rally. He cut an ad that ran Monday and Tuesday on conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh's program blasting McCain for supporting amnesty for illegal immigrants, among other things.
Nothing worked. Romney finished a distant second to McCain, with only 34 percent of the vote — and only an estimated six delegates. McCain got 149.