SAN DIEGO -- By withdrawing from the race for California governor, Darrell Issa deprives Democrats of one of their favorite targets in the recall campaign.
Issa, the two-term GOP congressman who bankrolled the petition drive for the recall, made an easy mark for critics who zeroed in on his conservative views and his brushes with the law.
The 49-year-old congressman, fighting back tears at a news conference in the county registrar's parking lot, said he was quitting the race because other strong contenders were jumping in and he wanted to remain in Congress.
In a parting shot, he blasted critics for practicing "the petty politics of personal destruction."
"This has been a great pleasure and great privilege to represent a face for the recall -- some would say a punching bag for the recall -- and we have enjoyed it in spite of the heartache it has caused family members around the country," he said.
Reporters and about two dozen supporters were expecting a campaign-style speech after Issa spent about five minutes signing filing papers at the registrar's office and walked outside to waiting microphones.
Instead, he withdrew.
He said the move may have lacked the drama of actor Arnold Schwarzenegger's entry Wednesday into the race on late-night television but acknowledged it would surprise many.
Issa, who has contributed $1.7 million to the recall drive, said he wasn't influenced by the actor's candidacy.
"It has nothing to do with Schwarzenegger's decision, other than I needed to know that there were several strong candidates," he said.
Several supporters were doubtful.
Sam Hardage, a hotel industry executive who has known Issa since the early 1990s, said the congressman was at his house for four hours Tuesday night for a Republican Party fund-raiser, the day before Schwarzenegger entered the race.
"Darrell was certainly in fine form and fine spirits and was definitely in the race," Hardage said. "I think Arnold's entry in the race obviously has an effect on every candidate, no doubt about it."
State Assemblyman John Campbell, a friend of Issa, said Schwarzenegger's decision changed the picture.
"My sense is it was Schwarzenegger's entry along with the way the field is shaping up," Campbell said.
Democrats have tried to make the recall a referendum on Issa, raising many of the questions that dogged him during a failed 1998 bid for the Senate and two congressional campaigns.
Those include two arrests in 1972 on weapons charges in Ohio and Michigan, one of which resulted in a $100 fine. The other case was dropped.
Issa was accused in 1980 of faking the theft of his Mercedes and selling the vehicle to a San Jose car dealer. Prosecutors dropped the case.
Issa, a Cleveland native who earned a high school equivalency degree while in the Army, founded Directed Electronics Inc. in 1980. The Vista-based company makes car alarms and remote starters.
A longtime backer of local GOP candidates, he got his first real taste of politics as a major benefactor of Proposition 209, a 1996 state ballot measure that eliminated race- and gender-based government programs. Voters approved the measure.
After that, Issa spent $12 million of his own money seeking the 1998 GOP Senate nomination to challenge Democrat Barbara Boxer. He lost the primary. When Rep. Ron Packard announced his retirement in 2000, Issa jumped at the chance to replace him.
An aide to Schwarzenegger, Sean Walsh, said Issa's withdrawal would have no impact on the actor's campaign.
"Many people in California consider (Issa) a patriot," Walsh said. "He's a good man and we wish him well."
Issa's congressional financial disclosure forms list his assets between $99.3 million and $319 million. He declined to endorse anyone Thursday but said he wouldn't hesitate to donate money.
"We now have enough people who will go and take California back in the right direction and, I will say, if they don't, 'I'll be back!"' he said, borrowing a line from Schwarzenegger.