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Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who sought to position himself as the true conservative choice for the Republican presidential nomination, announced Thursday afternoon that he had ended his campaign.

Romney, who had vowed to press on despite disappointing results in the Super Tuesday primary contests, made the announcement at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.

In a speech that touched on the messages of his campaign, Romney said he had come to his decision to help unify the Republican Party, and he charged that Democratic candidates would not pursue the war in Iraq.

“Because I love America in this time of war, I feel I have to stand aside for our party and our country,” he said.

Romney had hoped to use Tuesday’s results to narrow the gap between him and his chief rival, Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Instead, he saw McCain widen the lead at the same time Romney’s campaign lost ground to Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, who racked up solid gains.

Romney faced a series of enormous challenges in the campaign, not the least of which was trying to reconcile the moderate political views he espoused as the governor of Massachusetts, a liberal state, with the more conservative views he championed on the campaign. That tension — and his decision to change positions on a number of emotionally charged issues, including renouncing his past support for abortion rights — led his rivals to continually lambaste him as a flip-flopper.

Then there was the question of his Mormon religion. After the candidacy of Huckabee, a former Baptist preacher, exploded in Iowa, where it was fueled by evangelical voters, Romney was moved to give a major speech in Texas defending his faith and denouncing the rise of secularism.

And although Romney, a former management consultant, ran what many described as a textbook campaign, he never really recovered after failing to execute the original strategy of winning the first two contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, and using those wins to build momentum. Iowa went to Huckabee, and New Hampshire to McCain, who tried to paint himself as a straight talker to contrast with Romney’s flexibility.

As the campaign progressed, Romney and McCain exchanged increasingly bitter attacks. Romney charged that McCain was “outside the mainstream of conservative political thought.” McCain pointedly noted that Romney had changed his position on key issues for many conservative Republicans, such as abortion rights and gun control.

But in Thursday’s speech, Romney emphasized his agreement with McCain’s position that the United States needs to continue to pursue the war in Iraq. Arguing that the war is a critical part of the country’s battle against terrorism, Romney said the Democratic candidates, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, “would declare defeat and the consequences of that would be devastating.”