The leading contender to become speaker of the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives unexpectedly dropped out of the race Thursday, throwing the selection into turmoil.
California congressman Kevin McCarthy had been seeking support among the 247 Republicans in the 435-member House to replace House Speaker John Boehner ahead of his retirement at the end of October.
The House majority leader said Thursday that Republicans needed "a new face" to be the next House speaker after he surprisingly withdrew his name from consideration.
"The one thing I found in talking to everybody, if we are going to unite and be strong, we need a new face to help do that," McCarthy, considered favorite for the post, told reporters as he explained his decision.
WATCH: McCarthy speaks about his decision
McCarthy previously had told supporters he had won enough support to be the party's selection when the full House votes October 29 to replace Boehner.
But two other Republican congressmen, Jason Chaffetz of Utah and Daniel Webster of Florida, had announced their candidacies as well, complicating McCarthy's path to winning the late October vote if other Republicans continued to vote against him.
McCarthy, Chaffetz and Webster all call themselves conservatives, but the House Freedom Caucus of the 40 or so most vocal conservatives in the House had called for Webster's election.
As the party caucus met Thursday, McCarthy withdrew, shocking his colleagues.
"Totally stunned, no idea this was coming," said one Republican congressman, Peter King of New York.
Another Republican, Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, said he believed McCarthy, who was Boehner's second in command, was "not confident he would get the 218 votes" needed in the full House vote.
After McCarthy's withdrawal, the party caucus to pick a nominee for House speaker was postponed.
The speaker often sets the legislative priorities for the majority political party in the House.
Under the U.S. Constitution, the House speaker is second in line to be president in the event that both the president and vice president have died without being immediately replaced, although that has never happened in the 239-year history of the United States.
Boehner announced his resignation last month after a 25-year career in the House, the last five years as speaker. His authority was constantly challenged by hard-line conservatives — many of whom were elected in the 2010 "Tea Party" wave that gave Republicans a majority in the House — and who demanded a greater say in decision making and policy matters.
Boehner decided to resign after agreeing to a short-term plan that kept the government fully funded past September 30, when its spending authority was scheduled to expire, in the process rejecting demands to strip federal funding for the women's reproductive health group Planned Parenthood from the budget. New contentious debates on spending priorities are likely when the funding again runs out in mid-December.
The effort to defund Planned Parenthood was strongly opposed by congressional Democrats and President Barack Obama, which had set the stage for a possible government shutdown on October first.