Former Vice President Mike Pence suspends campaign for president
The decision comes "after much prayer and deliberation," he said.
Former Vice President Mike Pence was met with audible gasps and spats of applause when he made a surprise announcement on Saturday that he was suspending his campaign for president -- becoming the first major candidate to drop out of the race.
"Then Bible tells us, that there’s a time for every purpose under heaven. Traveling across the country over the past six months, I came here to say, it’s become clear to me, this is not my time. So after much prayer and deliberation, I have decided to suspend my campaign for president effective today," Pence said on stage at the Republican Jewish Coalition's Annual Leadership Summit in Las Vegas.
"I'm leaving this campaign, but let me promise you I will never leave the fight for conservative values and I will never stop fighting to elect principled, Republican leaders to every office in the land," he continued.
The announcement was unexpected as Pence said just last week he was working to qualify to make the next debate stage.
Harry Demell, 72, who traveled to the Las Vegas summit from New York, shared his disappointment with ABC News at Pence's announcement, having hoped for the chance to vote for him.
"I'm depressed. It was a big ovation inside. We still have a lot of good people, but I think we lost our best," Demell said. "When a gun was to his head quite literally, he did the right thing for the Constitution, for America."
"People want a showman who puts on an act, talks loud. And he did the right thing when the right thing was necessary. He stood for principles even though they were some times unpopular," Demell added, agreeing with Pence that it wasn't his time. "He's that kind of guy. And he's doing the right thing now."
On the trail, he leaned into what he viewed as policy wins for the Trump administration while trying to distance himself from Trump's controversial leadership style, often calling for politicians, instead, "to restore a threshold of civility in public life."
Pence's support for military aid to Ukraine set him apart from other Republican candidates. He also pushed the primary field to commit to a minimum 15-week abortion ban at the federal level and called for entitlement reforms, conservative issues he accused his "former running mate and his imitators" of "walking away from."
But Pence struggled to win over voters fiercely loyal to Trump, unable to rise in the poll beyond the single digits despite a packed summer in early states like Iowa and New Hampshire.
While Pence put in the work expected of a top-tier campaign, making at least 10 trips to Iowa and five to New Hampshire as a candidate, often it was just a few dozen attendees at his campaign events to greet him. Volunteers and staffers seemed to struggle to fill the rooms he rented.
"You can clap at that," Pence would often say, coaxing the crowd to applause, prompting comparisons to a similar request from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush during his ill-fated 2016 presidential bid.
Pence said Saturday he has no regrets about his bid for president.
"The only thing that would have been harder than coming up short would have been if we'd never tried at all," he said. "To the American people, I say this is not my time. But it's still your time."
Subtle changes since fundraising dropped
Since Pence reported his third quarter fundraising numbers earlier this month, the campaign's operations significantly tailored down. At least two campaign staffers were let go earlier this month. It's been more than two weeks since an appearance of his was advised to press.
When asked how close he is to qualifying to the next debate, Pence offered a preemptive defense to reporters after filing for New Hampshire's primary.
"I hope to be on that debate stage another time, but we're gonna tell our story. We're going to work hard, and we'll keep you posted," he told reporters, in a change from previous debates when he'd say he'd be there.
Pence pinned the fact that he didn't file for the GOP-run caucus in Nevada -- opting instead for the state-run primary, which comes with no delegates -- on the filing fee.
"It may be obvious in the days ahead that other campaigns have more money than ours," Pence said. "But it's not about money. It's about votes. ... We probably have to be a little bit more selective in where we invest resources and that was the basis of that."
Some say it wouldn't have mattered if Pence had more money -- it just wasn't his time.
"If Mike Pence had $200 million, it wouldn't change the numbers," said Barry Bennett, Ben Carson's former campaign manager and a one-time Trump adviser. "I don't think it's necessarily a funding issue. ... It's not really the model. It's more the message not being right for the time."
'A Christian, a conservative and a Republican'
Pence would introduce himself to voters as "a Christian, a conservative and a Republican -- in that order." His appeal to evangelical Christians in the midwest was part of the reason he said Trump chose him as vice president four years ago, plucking him away from a competitive re-election race for governor of Indiana.
In his launch speech from Iowa, Pence, who prior to his term as vice president was widely known for having signed Indiana's controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act into state law, sought to stress his commitment to traditional conservative policies, like his longtime support of abortion restrictions, religious liberty principles, shrinking the federal government and securing the southern border.
But most memorable was Pence cementing his break from Trump.
"I believe that anyone who puts themselves over the Constitution should never be president of the United States," he said. "And anyone who asks someone else to put them over the Constitution should never be president of the United States again."
Won't rule out supporting Trump
Pence has been asked dozens of times how he squares pledging to support the Republican nominee while also saying no one who puts themselves above the Constitution should ever be president.
Speaking in platitudes, he counts on voters to draw the conclusion themselves.
"I urge all my fellow Republicans here to give our country a Republican standard bearer that will, as Lincoln said, appeal to the better angels of our nature," Pence said Saturday. "And not only leads to victory, but lead our nation with civility to those that have always made America strong and prosperous and free."
Since he and Trump left office, Pence -- while still embracing the Trump administration's policy record -- has become increasingly vocal about disagreeing with Trump's push to have him reject their election defeat as he presided over Congress in a ceremonial role on Jan. 6, 2021.
Last month, Pence delivered a speech at The Hudson Institute calling on Republicans to choose classic conservative principles over "the siren song of populism" he sees pervading the party, a movement largely inspired by his former running mate.
He's laid out his differences with Trump and "his imitators" at cattle calls on support for aid to Ukraine and for a 15-week federal abortion ban at minimum -- but where Pence stands most distinct in the eyes of voters is on the issue of Jan. 6, particularly after an indictment charging Trump over the summer mentioned his role as vice president more than 100 times.
While Pence concedes their loss the 2020 election -- "I understand the disappointment. I was on the ballot," he says -- many of the voters he was courting have not: Three in 10 Americans still believe President Joe Biden won his 2020 election only due to voter fraud, according to a Monmouth poll from June.
Pence previously had not ruled out voting for Trump in 2024 but said, "I don't think I'll have to."
ABC's Soorin Kim contributed to this report.
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