By Alexandra Ulmer and Tim Reid
LAS VEGAS (Reuters) -Former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence ended his cash-strapped presidential campaign on Saturday, after struggling for months to convince Republican voters he was the best alternative to the man he once served with unswerving loyalty, Donald Trump.
Pence's surprise announcement at the Republican Jewish Coalition donor conference in Las Vegas made him the first big-name candidate to drop out. Trump is the runaway frontrunner in the race.
"Traveling over 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 told the audience to gasps and, later, prolonged claps and cheers of support.
Pence stopped short of endorsing anyone in his speech but seemed to swipe at his former boss.
"I urge all my fellow Republicans here, give our country a Republican standard bearer that will, as Lincoln said, appeal to the better angels of our nature," Pence said, adding it should also be someone who leads the country with "civility."
A source close to Pence laughed when asked whether he would endorse Trump.
At a rally later on Saturday, Trump said Pence should endorse him because he had a "great, successful presidency... I chose him, made him vice president." But, Trump added, "people in politics can be very disloyal."
A spokesperson for Pence did not immediately respond to a request for comment on his endorsement plans.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Trump did not mention Pence in their speeches at the donor conference. Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who was Trump's ambassador to the U.N., praised Pence as a fighter for America and Israel.
DeSantis later posted on social media platform X that Pence was a "principled man of faith."
More candidates might soon follow Pence in dropping out, consolidating the wide field of contenders. With more than a half dozen candidates, donors seeking alternatives to Trump have been reticent to open their pocketbooks.
Trump's lead is so large it may not matter, however, and contenders also might decide to stay in for longer. No clear-cut alternative has emerged since the DeSantis campaign has languished after a disappointing start.
PENCE'S DOOMED CAMPAIGN
Pence, 64, publicly broke with Trump, lambasting the former president for his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol. Pence gambled that Republican primary voters would reward him for following the U.S. Constitution rather than Trump's instructions to overturn the 2020 election results when as vice president, he held the ceremonial role of president of the Senate.
But Trump's base of supporters never forgave Pence for overseeing the certification of Democrat Joe Biden's election.
Trump has built one of the biggest primary leads in U.S. electoral history, according to opinion polls. They show most Republican voters have embraced, or do not care about, Trump's lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him and his efforts to overturn the result.
Pence announced his White House bid in June but has failed to attract enough primary voters and donors to sustain a candidacy that has languished in the low single digits in polls.
A stolid campaigner short on charisma, Pence was low on cash by October. He failed to catch fire in the first Republican nominating state of Iowa despite spending time and resources there.
Pence's third-quarter fundraising totals on Oct. 15 showed his campaign was $620,000 in debt, with only $1.2 million cash on hand. That was far less than several better-performing Republican rivals and insufficient for a White House race.
In several past elections, former vice presidents have succeeded in becoming a major party's White House nominee, including Republican George H.W. Bush in 1988 and Democrat Al Gore in 2000. Biden himself was vice president to Barack Obama.
But Pence could not overcome the political juggernaut of Trump, along with rivals who appealed more to primary voters and donors, including Haley and DeSantis.
Pence ran as a traditional social and fiscal conservative, and a foreign policy hawk, calling for increased military aid to Ukraine and cuts in welfare spending. His brand of Republicanism has been eclipsed in the Trump era by full-throated populism and "America First" isolationism.
(Additional reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Ross Colvin, David Gregorio and William Mallard)