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Michael Bloomberg announces the suspension of his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president in New York on Wednesday and endorses former vice-president Joe Biden.

DEMETRIUS FREEMAN/Bloomberg News

Billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s decision to drop out of the Democratic race and endorse Joe Biden could give a major boost to the former vice-president heading into the crucial next round of March primaries.

The former mayor of New York suspended his campaign Wednesday after a disappointing finish on Super Tuesday. But Mr. Bloomberg’s role in the race may just be getting started. On Wednesday, the 78-year-old backed Mr. Biden, saying he remained committed to helping a Democrat win the White House in November.

"I’ve always believed that defeating Donald Trump starts with uniting behind the candidate with the best shot to do it, and after yesterday’s vote it is clear that candidate is my friend and great American Joe Biden,” an emotional Mr. Bloomberg told campaign staff and supporters in New York. “I will not be our party’s nominee. But I will not walk away from the most important political fight of my life and I hope you won’t walk away either.”

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As one of the country’s richest people, Mr. Bloomberg’s endorsement is likely to play an outsize role in the campaign. He spent more than US$500-million of his personal fortune building a massive field operation with more than 2,400 staff in 200 offices across the country and flooding the airwaves with ads attacking Mr. Trump. During his presidential run, he promised to keep his campaign operations running through the November election in support of Democrats whether or not he won the nomination.

Support from Mr. Bloomberg’s estimated US$60-billion net worth would represent a badly needed financial windfall for Mr. Biden – who had fallen far behind Democratic challenger Bernie Sanders in fundraising – even as it angers the progressive Vermont senator’s legions of devoted supporters.

“I can’t thank you enough for your support,” Mr. Biden wrote on Twitter shortly after finishing a Wednesday morning phone call with Mr. Bloomberg. “This race is bigger than candidates and bigger than politics. It’s about defeating Donald Trump, and with your help, we’re gonna do it.”

As gerontocracy looms, American democracy may be running out of time

Officials with the Biden campaign told reporters that details for how exactly they could use Mr. Bloomberg’s resources were still being worked out.

Senior Bloomberg campaign adviser Tim O’Brien told The Washington Post on Wednesday: “We have long-term leases and long-term contracts with the team and the intention was always to put this big machine we have built behind whoever the nominee is.”

Federal campaign finance rules prohibit Mr. Bloomberg from donating directly or paying staff to work on Mr. Biden’s campaign. But the billionaire could mount an independent effort to help the former vice-president, either through a political action committee known as a Super PAC, or through his existing presidential campaign committee, said Paul Ryan, vice-president of policy and litigation at D.C.-based government watchdog group Common Cause.

While he would be prevented from co-ordinating directly with the campaign, Mr. Bloomberg could pour an unlimited amount of money into his own national ad campaigns and get-out-the-vote initiatives in support of Mr. Biden. “This is kind of unprecedented territory,” Mr. Ryan said. "I’ve been doing this work for 20 years, and I can’t think of an instance in which a self-financed, wealthy candidate dropped out but committed to support an opponent going forward.”

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An influx of cash from Mr. Bloomberg could also be pivotal to Democrats in swing states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania come November, said Bob Mulholland, a member of the Democratic National Committee from California who is supporting Mr. Biden. “It’s a beautiful situation for us,” he said. “Bloomberg paying for offices with so many staff – very talented staff – this is like a Super Bowl and we’re going into it with the favourite team.

Mr. Bloomberg’s money likely helped Mr. Biden sweep many of the Super Tuesday races, Mr. Mulholland said, by inundating the airwaves with ads that engaged voters who may not have otherwise paid attention to the primary – even if many ultimately cast a ballot for Mr. Biden. “History will show that his campaign in those 14 states was a deciding factor for Democrats, and especially Biden,” he said.

The three-term New York mayor entered the race late last November with an unconventional campaign that skipped early voting states to focus heavily on Super Tuesday. He surged to third place in some national polls as Mr. Biden faltered. But he struggled through a rocky debate performance in Nevada, and faced criticism of his wealth. He was also attacked over past treatment of female employees and support for racially targeted policing practices.

Mr. Bloomberg initially predicted he could remain in a three-man race and win in a contested national convention in the summer. But on Wednesday, he conceded that he was unlikely to win enough delegates to earn the nomination.

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