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Santorum’s backers in York, Lancaster counties shocked, saddened by his departure

Stunned by Rick Santorum’s announcement that he’s dropping out of the race for the White House, local supporters grudgingly vowed to support Mitt Romney in hopes that conservative unity will help unseat President Barack Obama.

“My phone hasn’t stopped ringing,” said Santorum supporter Sandy McGarry, chairwoman of the Lancaster County GOP. “People are saying, ‘No! Why is he getting out?’

“It’s a sad day, (but) I’m a Republican chairwoman. I will line up behind Romney. That’s my job.”

Bowing to the inevitable after an improbably resilient run, Santorum quit the presidential race on Tuesday, clearing the way for Romney to claim the Republican nomination.

Santorum signaled his intent to maintain a voice in the campaign to come, saying: “This game is a long, long, long way from over. We will continue to go out and fight and defeat President Barack Obama.”

That spirit is what attracted supporters like Sam Vetter, who volunteered as Santorum’s York County campaign co-captain.

“I’m shocked right now,” Vetter said after learning the former two-term senator from Pennsylvania had dropped out. “It’s kind of heartbreaking.

“I admire Sen. Santorum. He hasn’t wavered on anything. There are few politicians you meet who are 100 percent sincere. Sen. Santorum is one of those people. When you know you’ve got that person, it’s hard to give that up.”

Like other supporters, Vetter plans to back Romney, but “it’s not as easy as I would like it to be.”

It will be hard to get past “the flip-flopping on pretty normal conservative issues,” he said.

Still, “I want to give him the benefit of the doubt. Hopefully he’s sincere.”

Rock Hill’s Paul Anderko, who has supported Romney from the early days of the race, said he’s “excited that Romney is the nominee – or will be.”

He says he knows some Republicans criticize Romney for “getting the “establishment support,” but he earned it by campaigning for many candidates in 2008.

“That’s just good politics,” Anderko said. Romney “will create jobs... He’s a business leader – and I mean leader – not just a business person.”

Though Romney will face a tough fight against Obama, Anderko feels certain he’ll win in November.

While Santorum finished third behind Newt Gingrich and Romney in South Carolina’s Republican primary in January, he finished second in York County – ahead of Romney.

Santorum, a feisty campaigner who took everyone by surprise with his win in Iowa’s leadoff caucuses, ran on his conservative credentials and his experience in Congress – he was a House member for four years and senator for 12 – but was hobbled by a lack of money and organization.

Supporters were inspired by his underdog approach. With little fanfare or media attention, he built an organization in all 46 South Carolina counties.

As a senator, he was a high-profile conservative on social and economic issues. Santorum, who is Catholic, gained much of his S.C. support from evangelical Christians.

Supporters wanted him to press on to the Republican convention in August in Tampa, Fla.

“I wish he stayed in,” said Joe St. John, who ran Santorum’s Rock Hill campaign office. “He was the best candidate in this race.”

St. John joined the campaign as a volunteer, then became a paid staff member. Then he volunteered again, “just to save (Santorum) some money.”

“My 12-year-old daughter made over 5,000 phone calls for him,” St. John said. “It’s always been hard for me to get behind Romney, but I will because we have to beat Obama.”

Party leaders are touting that strategy as they look toward the fall election.

Quitting was “the honorable thing (for Santorum) to do” in the face of an inevitable Romney nomination, York County Republican Party chairman Glenn McCall said.

While Santorum surpassed expectations, he said, the party must focus on Romney, the candidate with the broadest appeal.

“We get so passionate – the grass roots activists – about our candidates, and we forget that there are voters out there who aren’t as active as we are,” he said.

“It’s a great time to now get behind the eventual nominee. We need to help bring unity to the party, but also funds.”

The Associated Press and The Charlotte Observer contributed.