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Brent Ward, a veteran federal prosecutor, dropped out of the Republican contest to replace former Attorney General John Swallow on Wednesday over questions about whether he meets the Utah Constitution's residency requirement for the job.

Ward had worked for the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, heading up an anti-obscenity task force, and lived in Virginia until 2010. He acknowledged he voted in Virginia, which under Utah law constitutes giving up residency in the Beehive State.

The Utah Constitution requires the attorney general to be a resident of the state for five years.

Ward said in an interview Tuesday he believed he still qualified for the post because it was always his intent to return to Utah. In a statement Wednesday, he said that he believes a court would side with him, but the litigation would create uncertainty in the office.

"Naming a new attorney general is a matter of urgency and importance to the people of our state and should not be delayed by litigation," he said. "Therefore, my wife, Esther Jane, and I have decided it would be best that I withdraw from the race."

Questions surrounded Ward's candidacy, given his involvement in a criminal case against Jeremy Johnson, who faces an 86-count federal indictment for fraud and other crimes. Ward was the lead prosecutor until he removed himself so he could focus on his bid for attorney general. In January, Ward approved a plea deal that would have given Swallow immunity from federal prosecution on matters related to Johnson's I Works business.

At the time, state Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, scolded Ward for getting into the race after offering such a deal. But Urquhart later backtracked, saying he had no opposition to Ward's candidacy and that those who know him "report he is of outstanding character."

Ward's exit leaves seven candidates vying for the post — Sean Reyes, Bret Rawson, Michelle Mumford, Scott Burns, Michael Wilkins, Brian Tarbet and Robert Smith. Former federal prosecutor Stephen Sorensen pulled out earlier.

The Utah Republican State Central Committee has a debate scheduled for Wednesday night with the seven remaining candidates. The 181-member committee will meet Saturday and choose three names to send to Gov. Gary Herbert, who will pick the next attorney general from the three.

Twitter: @RobertGehrke