Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson pulled out of the Republican fracas on Wednesday after Super Tuesday contests in which Donald Trump emerged a winner but faced stiff resistance from prominent party members who do not see him as a leader.
Carson, a conservative who briefly led opinion polls in the Republican race, said he would not attend Thursday's debate in Michigan and he did not "see a political path forward" after he was shut out in Tuesday’s primary results.
As a conservative black Republican, Carson stood out in the mostly white Republican Party and his fast start in polls and fundraising last year briefly made him look like a contender. But his campaign foundered in recent months amid staff infighting and shake-ups, and questions about Carson’s familiarity with foreign policy and other issues.
Carson signaled his withdrawal after Trump consolidated his lead in the Republican race with a string of victories on Tuesday. His departure would leave four candidates vying to be the Republican nominee in the Nov. 8 election to replace Democratic President Barack Obama - a field that was once crowded and is now clearly dominated by Trump.
Trump, a 69-year-old New York real estate tycoon, proclaimed himself a "unifier" on Tuesday night after he won seven states from centrist Massachusetts to the conservative Deep South in the contests to pick a party nominee.
But his main rivals in the White House race were unbowed.
"If this was anybody else as a front-runner, there'd be people right now saying 'Let's all rally around the front-runner,'" said U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who won his first state contest, Minnesota, on Tuesday.
"That will never happen with Donald Trump," Rubio, favorite of the Republican establishment, told Fox News on Wednesday. "On the contrary."
Trump's Super Tuesday wins compounded the problem for a party whose leaders are both critical of many of Trump's positions and values and skeptical he can defeat the likely Democratic nominee in November, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Trump has showered insults on rivals and critics and is facing strong party disapproval over his ideas to build a wall between the United States and Mexico, deport 11 million illegal immigrants and temporarily bar Muslims from entering the country.
While they have yet to coalesce around a single strategy, anti-Trump Republicans have begun taking action. The conservative group Club for Growth claimed credit for slowing Trump in some primary states by running attack ads. [nL2N16A0DF] It said it would air a new advertisement on Thursday in Florida as part of a $1.5 million ad buy.
The party's 2012 nominee, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, has weighed in against Trump, speculating about a "bombshell" in the billionaire's tax returns. Romney scheduled a speech for Thursday about the state of the race, according to sources familiar with Romney's plans.
Romney feels a need to speak out as the titular head of the party since he was the 2012 nominee and will not make an endorsement, one source told Reuters. "I think he's going to focus on where we are and what we have to do to win in November," one source said.
Some party donors - including hedge-fund manager Paul Singer and Meg Whitman, the Hewlett-Packard Enterprise chief executive - organized a phone call on Tuesday to get funding for an anti-Trump effort, the New York Times reported.
But one of Trump's former rivals in the 2016 race, Mike Huckabee, admonished Republicans for not respecting the will of the voters.
"The establishment Republicans are all bed-wetting over this and they don’t seem to understand that we have an election," the former Arkansas governor said on Fox News. "Let’s remember that we have an election process not a selection process."
Trump responded to the furor against him, saying in a tweet on Wednesday, "The special interests and people who control our politicians (puppets) are spending $25 million on misleading and fraudulent T.V. ads on me."
Democrats pounced on the chaos.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid called Trump a "monster" the Republicans spawned with their years of rancorous opposition to all major Obama administration initiatives.
"Republicans created him by spending seven years appealing to some of the darkest forces in America," Reid said on the Senate floor on Wednesday. [nL2N16A109]
On the Democratic side, Clinton, 68, took big steps toward securing her party's nomination on Tuesday, the 2016 campaign's biggest day of state-by-state nominating contests.
Her victories in seven states were propelled by African-American voters in southern states including Texas, Virginia and Arkansas, home of her husband, former President Bill Clinton.
Clinton's rival, U.S Senator Bernie Sanders, won his home state of Vermont along with Colorado, Minnesota and Oklahoma, vowed to pursue the battle for the nomination in the 35 states yet to vote.
Trump's main rivals, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Rubio, 44, said they were determined to remain in the race.
Cruz, 45, won Texas and Oklahoma, as well as the Alaska caucuses, bolstering the conservative senator's argument that he has the best chance of stopping Trump.
Trump holds a lead in the race to lock down delegates who pick the nominee at the party convention in July. He has secured 316 delegates, according to a New York Times count, ahead of Cruz's 226. Carson has won just eight delegates.
A nominee needs 1,237 delegates to win and the race could heat up with March 15 contests in Florida and Ohio. There are 99 delegates at stake in Florida and 66 in Ohio, and in both states, the winner takes the whole haul.
(Additional reporting by Ginger Gibson, Richard Cowan, Doina Chiacu, Megan Cassella in Washington; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Frances Kerry)
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