Romney's Exit Was Surprise To Supporters, Staffers

From CBS News' Scott Conroy:

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Minutes before Mitt Romney suspended his presidential campaign at the Conservative Political Action Committee, staffers were still hanging campaign signs and balloons in the ballroom.

Just before Romney's speech, I spoke to a lower level staff member who refused to believe me when I told him about the reports of what was about to happen.

Even Laura Ingraham, the conservative radio host who introduced the governor, didn't seem to know, as she took thinly veiled shots at John McCain and reiterated her support for Romney's candidacy.

The Romney campaign, which gained a well-earned reputation for its tightly controlled structure, succeeded in keeping the news quiet until the very last minute.

The decision to suspend his campaign could not have come easily for Romney, a man who spent more than a year of his life, a hefty chunk of his personal fortune, and every last drop of his seemingly boundless energy on trying to win the presidency. He was clearly fighting back his emotions as he outlined his reasons for dropping out of the race.

"If I fight on in my campaign, all the way to the convention, I would forestall the launch of a national campaign and make it more likely that Senator Clinton or Obama would win," he said. "And in this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign, be a part of aiding a surrender to terror."

Romney assured the crowd, "I hate to lose," and many of the supporters in the audience didn't like it any better than he did.

One man yelled, "Fight on!" But when the reality of what was happening began to sink in, several other Romney devotees comforted each other with embraces.

Although the governor hit on many of the same old themes of his stump speech in today's address, he did so with a rare kind of enthusiasm. He tried to hearten his supporters by pointing out that over 4 million people have voted for him, but it wasn't enough. The numbers just didn't add up for Romney to continue to be viable, and the self-professed lover of data knew it.

There have been some whispers that the 60-year-old Romney, who is in better physical shape than most men half his age, may try again in 2012 or 2016. Judging from the reaction from today's crowd at the CPAC conference, his base may still be there to support him if he chooses to do so.

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    Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.