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Sen. John McCain of Arizona all but sewed up the Republican presidential nomination on Thursday after Mitt Romney withdrew from the race, saying the war in Iraq and the terrorist threat made it imperative that the party unite.

In a dramatic announcement before a convention of stunned and largely unhappy conservatives, Romney said that he wanted to fight on but that taking his campaign all the way to the Republican convention in September would delay a national campaign against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton or Sen. Barack Obama, the two remaining Democratic contenders. Romney described them as weak on national security.

“They would retreat, declare defeat and the consequences of that would be devastating,” Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, told a crowd that broke into chants of “Mitt, Mitt, Mitt.”

Staying in the race, he said, “would make it easier for Sen. Clinton or Obama to win.”

Romney, who spent tens of millions of dollars of his personal fortune on the race, added, “Frankly, in this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding the surrender to terror.”

Romney did not explicitly endorse McCain, but for the first time in a campaign remarkable for its animosity between the two men, signaled a degree of support for him, saying he agreed with McCain on the war and on fighting terrorism.

“Now, I disagree with Sen. McCain on a number of issues, as you know,” Romney said, as the crowd booed at the mention of the name. “But I agree with him on doing whatever it takes to be successful in Iraq.”

McCain stepped forward two hours later before the same gathering, the annual convention of the Conservative Political Action Conference to try to make peace with a group deeply skeptical of him, if not outright hostile. In a moment that will long be remembered by Republicans, McCain was greeted with jeers as well as cheers.

“Many of you have disagreed strongly with some positions I have taken in recent years,” McCain told the group in an enormous, overflowing hotel ballroom, where people were held back from entering by security guards who said the raucous crowd exceeded fire code violations. “I understand that. I might not agree with it, but I respect it for the principled position it is.”