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Buttigieg drops out of US presidential race

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Washington (AFP)

Pete Buttigieg, the first openly gay US presidential candidate from a major party, on Sunday ended his campaign to be the Democratic nominee in the November election against Donald Trump.

The 38-year-old had risen rapidly from being a virtual unknown to becoming a national political figure, but he scored poorly in the latest primary in South Carolina, coming fourth with just eight percent.

He was scheduled to address supporters later Sunday in South Bend, Indiana, where he was previously the mayor.

His aides told US media that the former military veteran who served in Afghanistan would officially suspend his campaign.

Buttigieg emerged as the surprise major player in the contest when securing a narrow victory in the Iowa caucuses, earning widespread attention for his unflustered and professional approach in an often bitter Democratic nomination battle.

But his showing in South Carolina on Saturday confirmed polls suggesting that he struggled to attract support among black voters -- a key demographic.

Joe Biden's resounding victory in South Carolina has thrust him back into the race just days before voters go to the polls in 14 states on "Super Tuesday."

With 48 percent of the vote in South Carolina, Biden more than doubled the 20 percent won by national frontrunner Bernie Sanders -- positioning him as the leftist senator's main rival.

- Boost for Biden? -

Buttigieg's exit is almost certainly a boon to the Biden camp, as the two men have been running in the same centrist lane.

If Buttigieg had pressed on into Super Tuesday and beyond, it could have split the vote and help Sanders jump to a virtually insurmountable lead.

Buttigieg has expressed publicly that it would be a mistake for Democrats to nominate Sanders, a self-declared democratic socialist, to go up against Trump.

The president weighed in rapidly on Twitter, claiming that the Democratic Party leadership would act to halt Sanders winning.

"Pete Buttigieg is OUT. All of his SuperTuesday votes will go to Sleepy Joe Biden," Trump wrote.

"Great timing. This is the REAL beginning of the Dems taking Bernie out of play," Trump wrote.

In the most recent candidates' debate, Buttigieg presented himself as a moderate unifier, warning that a Sanders fight against Trump would spell "chaos" and divide the nation.

"I tell you what it adds up to," Buttigieg said, "it ends up as four more years of Donald Trump."

After the South Carolina result, he repeatedly told NBC that his focus was to do "what is best for the party" to "end the Trump presidency."

Sanders continues to hold poll leads in many of the Super Tuesday states -- including the biggest prize, California.

But Trump himself is said to see Sanders as an easy target in a country where the "socialist" label can be toxic.

Buttigieg's rivals in the campaign, including billionaire former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, quickly praised the young, barrier-busting candidate.

Buttigieg "ran a strong campaign that inspired audiences and made history," Bloomberg tweeted. "His dedication to serving our nation -- as a mayor and veteran -- reflected a love of country I deeply admire."

Biden's victory in South Carolina, where African-Americans make up around 60 percent of the Democratic primary electorate, was seen as crucial to reviving the former vice-president's flagging campaign.

"Just days ago the press and the pundits had declared this candidacy dead," Biden told hundreds of supporters at a victory rally in the state capital Columbia.

"You've launched our campaign on the path to defeating Donald Trump."

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