Kentucky Senator Rand Paul rests during a break in a Republican Presidential debate at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines, Iowa, Jan. 28, 2016.
Photo by Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

Republican field narrows as Iowa caucus knocks out candidates

Updated

The historically large Republican presidential field, which peaked at 17 candidates in August, is shrinking fast as three candidates announced they would drop out in the wake of the Iowa caucus. 

Sen. Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, and Sen. Marco Rubio captured the top three positions in Iowa, putting them at the center of the race and prompting rivals to concede their bids.

On Wednesday, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul suspended his campaign. “It’s been an incredible honor to run a principled campaign for the White House,” he said in a statement. “Today, I will end where I began, ready and willing to fight for the cause of Liberty.” 

RELATED: Trump: ‘Cruz didn’t win Iowa, he stole it’

Paul, the son of former presidential candidate Ron Paul, was at times considered a major threat to win the nomination. But he never proved competitive after launching his campaign as he failed to balance competing demands from his father’s libertarian base and more mainstream conservatives. He won just 5 percent of the vote in Iowa, significantly worse than the 21.5 percent the elder Paul won in 2012.

Ex-Sen. Rick Santorum, who won Iowa in 2012, but secured only 1 percent of the vote on Monday, followed suit on Wednesday night in an appearance on Fox News. He threw his support behind Rubio, who he called “a tremendously gifted young man” and praised for his emphasis on social issues and national security. 

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucus in 2008, was the first of the post-Iowa group to announce he was suspending his campaign on Monday night, after finishing with just 1.8 percent of the vote.

Photos from the Iowa campaign trail
As Iowans prepare to cast the first votes of the 2016 presidential election, Democrat and Republican candidates have been blanketing the state.

Both Santorum and Huckabee were most popular with evangelical voters, who are especially prevalent in Iowa. Unable to secure their support in a state where they had succeeded before, there was little rationale to try again elsewhere.

The three joined a growing pantheon of ex-candidates that includes Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former New York Gov. George Pataki, and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.

Dr. Ben Carson, who finished a distant fourth in Iowa, spent the week raging against false rumors that he was planning to quit the race, rumors that he said were spread by Cruz’s campaign in Iowa and that he claimed depressed his vote total.

RELATED: Bush pleads for town hall attendees to ‘please clap’

The story began after news broke on Monday that Carson would return home to Florida after the caucus rather than immediately press on to New Hampshire or South Carolina, an unusual move that led some observers to question whether he was planning to leave the race. Carson’s camp reaffirmed their commitment to the race, but Cruz’s staff emailed supporters heading to caucuses and told them — without explicitly saying the doctor would drop out — to announce Carson was “taking time off from the campaign trail” ahead of a “big announcement.”

Cruz has apologized for the incident but, in a press conference Wednesday, Carson called on his rival to fire any staffers responsible.

The remaining contenders will try to vault into the national conversation with a bounce-back performance in relatively moderate New Hampshire and could face intense pressure to drop out as well if they fail. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush have all made the state central to their candidacy and their path forward will be murky if they fail to impress. Carly Fiorina, who finished with just 1.9 percent of the vote in Iowa, is another candidate who needs to prove her viability soon or be swept aside.

Among those still in the race: Former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, who received just 12 votes  — not percentage points, total votes — in Iowa on Monday.

“Started out as 1 of 17 GOP Candidates, now with Rand Paul & Rick Santorum out, 1 or 9 [sic] #StillStanding,” a chipper Gilmore tweeted Wednesday.

Iowa, Jim Gilmore, Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul and Rick Santorum

Republican field narrows as Iowa caucus knocks out candidates

Updated