By STEVEN R. HURST
WASHINGTON — Rick Santorum suspended his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination Tuesday, leaving the field clear for Mitt Romney as the party’s likely choice to challenge President Barack Obama in November.
The former Pennsylvania senator made the announcement in his home state, two weeks before the Republican primary vote there. Santorum was trailing Romney in polls in Pennsylvania and had said the state was a must-win to keep his candidacy alive.
“This race is over for me,” Santorum told supporters of his improbable campaign, saying he and his family had made the decision over the weekend after his 3-year-old daughter’s latest hospitalization.
Santorum was a favorite of the most conservative Republican voters, but Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, had accumulated a huge lead in delegates to the party’s national convention in August.
Santorum pointedly made no mention or endorsement of Romney, whom he had derided as an unworthy standard-bearer for the Republicans.
Romney congratulated Santorum on his campaign, calling him an “able and worthy competitor.”
Romney’s conservative credentials are suspect among the conservative Republican base, but Santorum’s inability to put together primary election victories in key states — especially in the industrial Midwest — appeared to have convinced most voters that Romney’s nomination was inevitable.
Santorum was the only Republican in what started out as a crowded field who was able to create a sustained challenge to Romney, who is making his second run for the nomination. The distaste that conservatives felt for Romney showed itself in a series of runs at his front-runner status by Rep. Michelle Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, businessman Herman Cain and former speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich.
Gingrich on Tuesday said he would stay in the race until the party’s convention.
Santorum was to have returned to the campaign trail Tuesday after his 3-year-old daughter Bella was released from the hospital. She suffers from a rare genetic condition and was hospitalized Friday as her father began a brief holiday break from campaigning. She was discharged from the hospital Monday night.
Santorum said her latest hospitalization led him and his family to decide against continuing in the race.
Five states, including Pennsylvania, hold primaries April 24
President Barack Obama, meanwhile, stepped up his election-year insistence that the wealthy pay a greater share of taxes, renewing his call Tuesday for Congress to raise taxes on millionaires.
Hoping to draw a sharp contrast with Romney, Obama outlined his support for the so-called “Buffett rule” in Florida. Obama says he wants to revamp the U.S. tax law under which wealthy investors often pay taxes at a lower rate than middle-class wage-earners.
The push for the Buffett rule is named after billionaire investor Warren Buffett, who famously said it was wrong for him to be paying a lower tax rate than that levied on his secretary.
Obama has proposed that people earning at least US$1 million annually, whether in salary or investments, should pay at least 30 percent of their income in taxes. Many wealthy taxpayers earn investment income, which is taxed at 15 percent, allowing them to pay a smaller percentage of their income in taxes. The top rate for taxpayers with high incomes derived from wages is 35 percent.