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Scott Walker, the Wisconsin governor, has become the first major casualty of the Republican presidential race, crashing out months before the first caucus in Iowa, in a move that underscores how Donald Trump has upended the party’s campaign for the White House.
Mr Walker announced his move to quit the race in a short speech in which he called on other Republicans to follow suit in an effort to narrow the field so voters would have a starker choice between Mr Trump and other candidates.
“Ronald Reagan was good for America because he was an optimist. Sadly the debate taking place in the Republican party today is not focused on that optimistic view of America,” Mr Walker said in suspending his campaign.
“I encourage other Republican presidential candidates to consider doing the same, so that the voters can focus on a limited number of candidates who can offer a positive conservative alternative to the current frontrunner. This is fundamentally important to the future of the party.”
His move follows the release of a new CNN poll — the first since the GOP presidential debate last week — which showed that less than 1 per cent of Republicans supported what had been a promising bid for the White House.
The poll found that Mr Trump continues to lead the Republican pack with 24 per cent, followed by Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive who has 15 per cent following a strong debate performance, and Marco Rubio, the Cuban-American senator who commands 11 per cent.
Earlier this year, before the 2016 race kicked into full gear, Mr Walker and Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, were seen as the two most likely candidates to battle it out for the Republican nomination. But the emergence of Mr Trump, coupled with a huge field of candidates and poor performances by Mr Walker in the first two presidential debates, crippled his campaign.
Mr Walker follows Rick Perry, the former Texas governor, whose campaign imploded earlier this month because of a lack of money. His departure still leaves 15 Republicans vying for the nomination. It also paves the way for other candidates to hoover up his staff and financial backers, many of whom grew increasingly despondent as he plummeted in the opinion polls.
Ahead of the announcement, Mr Trump, who has clashed with most of his GOP rivals, tweeted: “I got to know @ScottWalker well — he’s a very nice person and has a great future.” Mr Bush also tweeted that Mr Walker was a “good man who has a proven record of fighting for conservative reforms”.
The Wisconsin governor had been a hero to many conservatives because of his bruising but successful battle with the unions in his state. He was also governor of a Democratic state which fans hoped meant he could generate enough support among independents to take back the White House.
Earlier in the campaign, he was also seen as a likely recipient of the more than $900m that David and Charles Koch, two industrialist billionaire brothers, and their network are planning to plough into the Republican race.
Mr Walker cast himself as an ordinary American who rode a Harley-Davidson and wore cheap sweaters that he bought at Kohl’s department store. His pitch was designed to distinguish himself from Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP nominee, who lost to Barack Obama partly because voters saw him as a rich businessman who was removed from the issues facing average Americans.
The move by Mr Walker to leave the race raises questions about Mr Bush. While the former Florida governor is the clear frontrunner in terms of fundraising, having raised well over $100m, he is also struggling to connect with voters.
The CNN poll found that only 9 per cent of Republicans back his bid for the White House. Many in the Republican base are wary of his conservative credentials, particularly on education and immigration reform.
Mr Bush was the only Republican candidate to be booed when he attended an event for conservatives sponsored by the Heritage Foundation on Friday. Mr Bush struggled to win over the overwhelmingly white crowd in Greenville, South Carolina.
His lacklustre performance at the forum was matched by that of Mr Walker who also had trouble convincing the crowd that he would be their flag-bearer in the election.
Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon who has stolen a lot of support from Mr Walker in the key early state of Iowa, was the clear winner at the event, followed by Mr Cruz, the Texas senator, Ms Fiorina and Mr Rubio.
The 2016 campaign has started earlier than most, meaning the field of candidates could be whittled down sooner than expected as voters get to know the contenders.
Mr Walker’s departure is a telling example of how much debates matter. While he fell sharply in the post-debate polls, Ms Fiorina has rocketed to second place — she was in the bottom tier of candidates just a month ago.
“In the end, I believe that voters want to be for something and not against someone,” Mr Walker said on Monday, in an implicit attack on Mr Trump, whom he did not refer to by name. “Instead of talking about how bad things are, we want to hear about how we can make them better for everyone. We need to get back to the basics of our party.”