By Zac Anderson

A day after saying she planned to continue running for a state House seat despite revelations that she lied about having a degree from Miami University and went to great lengths to deceive people, Melissa Howard reversed course Tuesday and dropped out of a contest that has received national attention.

Howard said in a text message to the Herald-Tribune that "I have come to the realization that the right thing to do for my community is to withdraw from the race. I will do so today."

"I made a terrible error in judgement [sic]," Howard added. "I am thankful for everyone who gave so much toward my success, and I am deeply sorry."

Howard's announcement ends one of the more bizarre chapters in Southwest Florida politics and brings relief to many local Republicans who worried her campaign was embarrassing the local party and making it a national laughingstock.

"I think she did the right thing for the community," said Sarasota GOP Chairman Joe Gruters. "I think it saved a lot of people a lot of grief and I hope that she finds whatever peace that she needs and moves forward and has a lot of success. But we're glad she's out of the race and we're focused on winning in November."

The controversy over Howard's academic credentials went national in recent days, with the Washington Post, Fox News, the New York Times, "Good Morning America", CNN and other major media outlets covering the strange story.

Howard's troubles began when a conservative news website published a report questioning whether she had graduated from Miami University, as she claimed.

Howard pushed back hard. She flew to Ohio to obtain her college transcripts and what she said is her diploma, displaying pictures of both online.

But the story unraveled when Miami University general counsel Robin Parker sent an email to the Herald-Tribune and other media outlets saying Howard never graduated and the diploma "does not appear to be an accurate Miami University diploma."

Howard first responded to reports about Parker's email with a statement from her campaign manager Saturday calling it "fake news." After remaining silent Saturday and Sunday, Howard issued a statement Monday admitting she lied about having a degree, apologizing and declaring she planned to continue campaigning in the GOP primary against Sarasota attorney Tommy Gregory.

"It was not my intent to deceive or mislead anyone," Howard said Monday. "I made a mistake in saying that I completed my degree. What I did was wrong and set a bad example for someone seeking public service. I am staying in the race and intend to win and lead by example from now on."

Howard's announcement Monday upset many GOP leaders, who felt she was tarnishing the party's brand and making it harder for them to win the general election and hold onto a strongly GOP-leaning seat that covers eastern Manatee County and portion of eastern Sarasota County.

But Gruters, Manatee County GOP Chairwoman Kathy King and incoming GOP House Speaker Jose Oliva resisted calls for the party to officially ask Howard to bow out of the race. All three said it should be up to the voters to decide.

Gruters said that even though he avoided publicly calling on Howard to drop out, there was a behind-the-scenes effort to "try and resolve this situation."

"I just am glad this entire issue is resolved," he said Tuesday. "The party's much better off, the community's much better off and I hope that whatever she needs she gets, but we're focused on moving forward helping Tommy get elected in November."

If she had stayed in the race, Howard's campaign would have been a divisive distraction for a party that already is facing headwinds in the midterm election and is eager to avoid unnecessary strife.

"Honorable and smart move by Melissa Howard," tweeted prominent GOP consultant Brett Doster, who is consulting for Gregory. "She just saved her and her allies massive pain and emotional embarrassment over the next 10 days."

With Howard out, Gregory can now look ahead to the general election matchup against Bradenton Democrat Liv Colemen.

Howard's name still will be on the ballot, but Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner said there will be notes at polling locations -- and included with any absentee ballots requested after she officially withdraws -- telling voters that a vote for Howard will not count.

"It's still there physically, but we're not going to be officially tabulating those results anymore," Turner said.

Gregory said he spoke with Howard Tuesday "and we had a great conversation."

"She apologized for what she did and for the rancor in this campaign and offered her full support for my candidacy," he added.

Gregory praised Howard, who has called him a liar and accused him of spreading the degree story.

"Melissa worked hard in this race," Gregory said. "I wish her all of the best, and I'm sure she will continue to do good things in the community through her nonprofit work. Now we all need to move on."

Yet while Gregory was ready to move on, one of his top supporters was still pressing to have Howard investigated for possible criminal fraud stemming from the fake diploma.

Donna Hayes, a former Manatee County commissioner and former chair of the Manatee GOP, sent a letter Monday to Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Rick Swearingen and 12th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Ed Brodsky accusing Howard of committing a crime.

Florida statute 817.566 states that "Any person, with intent to defraud, misrepresents his or her association with, or academic standing or progress at, any post-secondary educational institution by falsely making, altering, simulating, or forging" a degree is guilty of a first-degree misdemeanor.

"She broke the law," Hayes said. "There are consequences in life, and if she hasn't realized that at age 46 this is probably a wonderful learning experience and hopefully this should help Melissa through life as time goes on."

An FDLE spokeswoman said Tuesday that the agency had yet to receive Hayes's letter. Once the letter is received, the agency will do a preliminary review to determine whether an investigation is warranted, although FDLE typically does not investigate misdemeanors and might refer to the case to a local law enforcement agency.

"Usually misdemeanors are handled at the local level, but if someone's asking us to take a look at it we'll do a review," said FDLE spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger.

Hayes also speculated on why Howard reversed course and dropped out of the race, saying she believes some of the candidate's top supporters urged her to get out. She said GOP leaders wanted to avoid the "humiliation" of additional scrutiny surrounding Howard's campaign. Howard's actions put her supporters in a difficult position.

"I believe Pat Neal and Carlos Beruff and Rex Jensen had an intervention with Melissa in an undisclosed place," Hayes said, mentioning three prominent developers who have backed Howard. "It was a combination of that and a number of other elected officials who had a strong interest in her next action."

Neal declined to comment on Hayes's assertion. He attributed the fact that Howard got out of the race to pressure from other GOP leaders, including Bradenton Republican state House candidate Will Robinson.

"The Republican Party has some clean up to do and I think Will Robinson and House leadership established that Melissa would not have been effective in state government," Neal said. "She would have been a distraction that would not have helped the citizens of Manatee County and would not have helped the party."

(c)2018 Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla.