The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, USA Today, New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal's world-wide newsbox all lead with Mitt Romney's surprise withdrawal from the presidential race, which automatically made Sen. John McCain the all-but-official Republican nominee. Romney made his announcement before a large, clearly unhappy audience at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, many of whom shouted out that the former Massachusetts governor should stay in the race and "Fight on!" But Romney said that he was stepping aside for the good of the party, insisting that if he were to stay in the race, it "would make it easier for Senator Clinton or Obama to win." Romney made up his mind to quit the race after meeting with advisers on Wednesday, who made it clear that it would be virtually impossible for him to catch up to McCain after the losses on Super Tuesday.
McCain spoke at CPAC a few hours after Romney and was met with loud boos, which highlighted how the senator has to focus wholeheartedly on repairing relations with the GOP's conservative base if he hopes to get widespread support for his candidacy. Even though more of the GOP establishment continues to fall in line behind McCain, many conservatives continue to be deeply skeptical of the senator. President Bush will effectively endorse McCain without actually naming him in a speech before the conservative audience today.
All the papers try to figure out what exactly went wrong for Romney, a candidate who had the support of Republican insiders and millions of dollars at his disposal. But Romney's collapse is "an important reminder that what impresses in political backrooms does not always impress voters," says the LAT. Despite sinking in $35 million of his own money (the WP says it was $50 million) and raising millions more, he still faced one fundamental problem that almost all the papers summarize with one word: "authenticity." Romney's more liberal past as Massachusetts governor made it easy for his rivals to attack him as a flip-flopper and raise doubts about his agenda and true beliefs. Although it seems concerns about his Mormon faith dropped from the spotlight in recent weeks, many think it was what allowed Mike Huckabee to rise in Iowa, which led to a collapse in Romney's strategy of gaining momentum from the early contests.
The WSJ fronts an interesting look at how "Romney's campaign exposed a surprisingly virulent strain of anti-Mormonism that had been largely hidden to the general public." This came as a shock to many in the church, who had no idea that their religion had so many vocal critics. "The Romney campaign has given the church a wake-up call. There is the equivalent of anti-Semitism still out there," a Mormon sociologist tells the paper.
Despite his positive words about McCain yesterday, Romney didn't endorse the senator and emphasized he would keep his delegates' support "all the way to the convention." He mentioned that he would "fight on, just like Ronald Reagan did in 1976," which was seen by many as a hint that he isn't going anywhere and plans to run in 2012. Slate's John Dickerson notes that "Romney had his best political moment of the race while expiring," and if the rumors of a future run for the White House are true, perhaps yesterday's speech "marked that beginning as much as this ending."
Although Mike Huckabee continues in the race, no one thinks he has much of a chance even if he does win a few more primaries, as is largely expected. Many have raised the possiblity that he's angling for the vice president slot, but that possibility is looking increasingly unlikely. In a WSJ op-ed piece, the president of the Club for Growth, former Rep. Pat Toomey, writes that "Huckabee on the ticket would be a disaster" due to his tax-raising record. "Picking him would only make it more likely that conservatives will sit on their hands come November."
On the Democratic side, Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both turned their attention to McCain as voters are more likely to specifically think about which candidate will provide a better challenge to the Republican candidate. The Post fronts a look at Clinton's appearance in Virginia yesterday and notes that she mentioned Obama's name only once but repeatedly attacked McCain. Meanwhile, cash continued to flow, and Clinton's campaign managed to raise $6.4 million since Super Tuesday. It's an impressive number, but Obama continues to be ahead and has received $7.2 million.
The NYT, WP, and LAT front news that Congress approved a $168 billion stimulus package (the Post says $152 billion) that will send checks to 130 million households. The Senate slightly expanded the original House bill to include rebates for 20 million senior citizens and 250,000 disabled veterans. The House quickly approved the new version, which kept the tax breaks for businesses, and sent it to the president. Most taxpayers who have an adjusted gross income of $75,000 or lower will receive $600, plus $300 for each child under 17. The Treasury Department said the checks should begin to go out in May.
The papers note CIA Director Michael Hayden told the House intelligence committee that water-boarding may be illegal and agency operatives have been forbidden for almost five years from using the harsh interrogation tactic that many consider to be torture. "It is not certain that the technique would be considered to be lawful under current statute," he said. A few hours earlier, Attorney General Michael Mukasey told lawmakers he wouldn't pursue an investigation into whether U.S. agents broke the law when they used the interrogation technique that simulates drowning because the Justice Department can't prosecute people for actions it had authorized earlier.
The WSJ notes that it's looking increasingly likely that contractors were involved in water-boarding terrorist suspects. Although Hayden insisted that contractors must follow the same rules as CIA operatives, some doubt they can be held to the same standards or are as accountable. Also, some lawmakers are questioning whether using contractors for interrogations is even legal since, according to policy, "inherently governmental activities" must be performed by government employees.