ATLANTA (Reuters) - Republican Mitt Romney’s exit from the White House race left dismayed conservatives vowing to sit out the election -- or else hold their noses to vote for John McCain, their party’s likely nominee.
“I’m really depressed today because this is the first time that I find myself in a position that I will not work for the nominee (McCain),” said a caller to host Rush Limbaugh’s conservative talk-radio show on the verge of tears.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, suspended his campaign on Thursday, shocking supporters and all but handing the nomination to McCain, a man some view as too liberal on immigration reform, taxes and free speech.
Romney lost 14 of 21 states on Tuesday, the biggest day of nominating contests before the November 4 election.
Declining to identify herself, the caller said she might even vote for Sen. Barack Obama, vying with Sen. Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination in the campaign to choose a successor to U.S. President George W. Bush.
Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee is the only other Republican hopeful to have won primary states.
But many conservative Republicans had fixed on Romney as their best choice in a field they saw as too liberal or moderate, even if they did have reservations about his perceived changes from more liberal positions of late.
REAGAN AN ICON
The Republicans’ conservative wing looks to former President Ronald Reagan as an icon and shares his commitment to lower taxes, limited government, individual freedom and strong national defense.
“The only thing I can think to do is to vote for McCain (in November) and I am not voting for McCain because of his views. I am voting against the Democrats,” said Jack Lesher, who owns an upmarket gun shop in a suburb of Atlanta.
Lesher said that as a small business owner he votes for the most conservative, low-tax candidate, but he was motivated also this time by a desire to stop Clinton from becoming president. Her husband Bill Clinton was president before Bush.
“We view Hillary Clinton as the queen of the ‘Evil Empire’ because of her relationship with her husband,” he said in a view shared by many callers to national talk-radio shows, a popular U.S. forum for airing conservative views.
Romney, former Sen. Fred Thompson and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani are among those to quit the race. Some Republicans decried the fact this reduced the choice available to conservatives in states yet to vote.
“McCain has taken a commanding lead and that will influence people that there’s no point trying to support Huckabee,” said Herb Franks, 57, manager of Victory Pawn shop in Columbus, Georgia.
Under a complicated U.S. system for nominating candidates, the first caucus was held on January 3 in Iowa and other states vote all the way through to June. The Democrats hold a national convention in August; the Republicans in September.
(Editing by Tom Brown and Howard Goller)