Mike Pence’s exit from White House bid is winnowing of crowded field, rivals say

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Mike Pence’s surprise withdrawal from the Republican presidential nomination race on Saturday is part of natural winnowing of the crowded field, rivals of the former vice-president said Sunday – and one that could help their quest of candidates to wrestle the nomination from overwhelming frontrunner Donald Trump.

“In the end, the race is narrowing, which everyone said it would,” said former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, one of Trump’s fiercest Republican critics and one of four who have qualified for a third TV debate next month in Miami that may not have included Pence, who, he told CNN’s State of the Union, had run “a tough race, a good race”.

Related: Mike Pence suspends campaign for Republican presidential nomination

The former vice-president’s decision to make an early exit may also have been influenced by fundraising difficulties he was known to be having. Announcing his departure from the field, saying it had “become clear” he did not have a path to victory, he vowed to help elect “principled Republican leaders”.

Christie, who is at 3.1% support in primary polling, put his finger on Pence’s fundamental misalignment – accepting Trump’s hand as his running mate in 2016, resisting his boss on January 6, then defending his administration record while simultaneously urging his party to turn away from Trump populism and back to conservative values.

“There are people who want to have it both ways,” Christie continued his comments to CNN on Sunday. “They want to support him … on the other hand they want to go after him.”

But Christie also carries that burden, having sought a cabinet appointment in the Trump administration in 2016.

The former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley is widely presumed to be the main beneficiary of Pence’s exit. In a speech on Saturday, the former US ambassador to the UN praised Pence as a “good man of faith” who had “fought for America and he has fought for Israel”.

Haley’s polling is rising amid endorsements from Republican politicians and pundits prepared to break with Trump. “She’s breaking through at the right moment,” Republican strategist Mike Murphy told Politico last week. “Everything else has been ridiculous pre-season coverage … I think it all starts now.”

According to FiveThirtyEight, Haley is polling in third place nationally at 8% among registered Republican voters, behind Florida governor Ron DeSantis, at 14%. But support for DeSantis is falling. In the key early primary state of New Hampshire, Haley beats DeSantis 19% to 10%, according to a recent survey.

But both DeSantis and Haley, along with Vivek Ramaswamy and Christie, still hugely trail Trump at 58% support nationally – and the Maga king’s support only seems to grow with each criminal and civil indictment he is served.

Governor DeSantis also rallied behind Pence, calling him “a principled man of faith who has worked tirelessly to advance the conservative cause” in a post on X.

After Pence stepped aside, Trump called on him for his endorsement: “I don’t know about Mike Pence. He should endorse me. You know why? Because I had a great, successful presidency and he was the vice-president.”

But Trump also took a swipe at his Christian fundamentalist vice-president, who refused to help in a scheme to overturn the 2020 election and held the confirmation vote after the Capitol building had been cleared of January 6 protesters.

“People in politics can be very disloyal,” Trump said at a rally in Sioux City, Iowa, according to the Hill.

Pence’s exit is also a stark reminder of Trump’s hold over the party: former vice-presidents are typically seen as a formidable primary challengers. But in recent years, that assumption has weakened.

Neither Al Gore, Dick Cheney, Joe Biden, or now Pence, have automatically managed or sought to immediately trade in the vice-presidency for the presidency.

But as ABC News political contributor Donna Brazile pointed out on Sunday, Pence did not resonate with voters – a former vice-president who was unable to get traction, raise money or distinguish himself. “He tried to change the dynamics of the Republican party but it’s not changing. It’s now behind Donald Trump come trial or tribulations.”