CHICAGO — A well-known Illinois state senator dropped her bid Sunday for the U.S. House seat vacated by Jesse Jackson Jr., narrowing the field and consolidating key support behind another Democrat in a race where gun control has emerged as a central issue.

State Sen. Toi Hutchinson, targeted in recent days by critical anti-gun campaign ads funded by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's political action committee, said she was leaving the race and swinging her support to former state Rep. Robin Kelly. The major shake-up came with just nine days to go before the Feb. 26 primary.

Hutchinson's move reflected the sharp divisions over the gun control issue, but also appeared to be in line with efforts to consolidate support for one of the many black candidates in the black-majority district. Community leaders had expressed concerns that the black vote could be split, thus boosting the chances of former U.S. Rep. Debbie Halvorson, a white candidate whom Jackson defeated in last year's primary battle.

"I am simply unwilling to risk playing a role going forward that could result in dividing our community at time a when we need unity more than ever," Hutchinson said Sunday in a written statement. "In the wake of horrendous gun related crimes all across our country, I agree with Robin that we need to stand together to fight gun violence."

Bloomberg's super PAC, Independence USA, has run ads in the district that target Hutchinson for her past opposition to tougher gun restrictions – one of the campaign's most pressing issues along with economic hardships such as joblessness and foreclosures.

In a district encompassing parts of Chicago's South Side that have been deeply affected by gun violence, Hutchinson campaigned on more moderate views, saying the December school shooting in Newtown, Conn., brought about a change of heart.

Kelly, too, was among those criticizing Hutchinson's previous position and questioning whether her newfound stance was genuine. Now, Kelly says she's pleased to have her former rival's backing.

"In Congress, I will work with Sen. Hutchinson ... and other leaders throughout our district to get guns off our streets and bring jobs to our neighborhoods," Kelly said in a statement.

With Hutchinson's departure, the race is down to three top Democratic contenders: Kelly, Chicago Alderman Anthony Beale and Halvorson. The primary will likely decide the race because the district is so overwhelmingly Democratic.

Illinois' 2nd district also has a majority of black voters, even after boundaries were redrawn to include rural areas where there are greater numbers of white voters and where Halvorson is from.

Halvorson said Sunday that she believes she can easily woo those who had supported Hutchinson. She said in an interview that she was surprised by the sudden withdrawal and questioned what was behind the decision.

"There's no way that she would get out of the race unless she was told that she had no choice," Halvorson told The Associated Press. "And now what kind of deal was made? What is she going to get out of it? And I think everybody should come clean. ... This district is tired of wheeling and dealing."

Hutchinson's campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

Kelly told the AP that as far as she was aware there were no backroom negotiations or political deals made and that Hutchinson's decision was hers alone. She also does not think the ads by Bloomberg's PAC were any kind of tipping point in that decision.

Kelly defended the New York mayor's right to weigh in on an election in Illinois with ads endorsing her on the gun control issue and attacking her opponents.

"It's still up the people who go into the booth and vote," Kelly said in a phone interview. "But I think those ads counterbalance the millions of dollars that the NRA (National Rifle Association) has spent to influence what they want to influence."

Halvorson also has been targeted by the Bloomberg PAC ads because of her opposition to an assault weapons ban. She bristled at the notion of Bloomberg wading into the election.

"He's got billions of dollars, he has always been very controlling and he wants to control a congressional seat," she said.

Halvorson supports background checks for gun purchases and registration of all firearms but opposes an assault weapons ban, saying law-abiding gun owners have Second Amendment rights and that a ban in Cook County hasn't prevented gun violence.

The special election was triggered by Jackson's resignation in November. Jackson faces a federal conspiracy charge for allegedly spending $750,000 in campaign money on personal expenses. He also was recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

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  • IN: Robin Kelly

    In this photo taken Aug. 18, 2010, Robin Kelly, former Illinois state representative and current Cook County Chief Administrative officer, is seen during Democrats Day at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield. On Dec. 2, <a href="" target="_hplink">Kelly announced her run for Jackson's seat</a> from a restaurant in suburban Matteson, Ill.

  • OUT: Toi Hutchinson

    In this Dec. 13, 2011 file photo Illinois Sen. Toi Hutchinson, D-Olympia Fields, speaks on the Senate floor in Springfield. <a href=""> Hutchinson dropped out of the race in February 2013.

  • OUT: Napoleon Harris

    The State Senator-elected and former NFL player -- who also owns two pizza chains -- was formerly <a href="">among the special election candidates</a>. He <a href="">formally announced his run</a> on Nov. 27. Harris <a href="" target="_hplink">announced he was dropping out of the race</a> in late January. <em>Pictured:</em> Harris poses for his 2008 NFL headshot at photo day in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Getty Images)

  • IN: Lenny McAllister

    Conservative pundit Lenny McAllister told Chicago that <a href="">he is running for Jackson's congressional seat</a>. As of Dec. 5, he will be running unopposed in the Republican primary.

  • IN: Debbie Halvorson

    Debbie Halvorson speaks to supporter as she gives her concession speech March 20 in Homewood, Ill. Halvorson, a former congresswoman who unsuccessfully challenged Jackson in the democratic primary, confirmed on Nov. 25 that <a href="">she will give the seat another go</a>.

  • IN: Mel Reynolds

    FILE - In this Jan. 9, 1995 file photo, U.S. Rep. Mel Reynolds responds to question in Chicago. Reynolds has scheduled a news conference Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012, in Chicago to announce that he is running to replace Jesse Jackson Jr. in Congress. The Harvard-educated Democrat later also went to prison after being convicted of fraud for concealing debts to obtain bank loans and diverting money intended for voter registration drives into his election campaign. Jackson was first elected to Congress in 1995 in a special election to replace Reynolds. Reynolds said on Nov. 28 <a href="">his new campaign is "far from a joke</a>." (AP Photo/Fred Jewell, File)

  • IN: Anthony Beale

    Chicago <a href="" target="_hplink">Alderman Anthony Beale jumped into the race on Nov. 29</a> to replace his former political mentor, Jesse Jackson Jr. "I'm the only candidate in this race [who] has created thousands of jobs. ... One project alone has created 3,000 to 4,000 jobs. That's the kind of leadership we need," he said in the Sun-Times.

  • OUT: Anne Marie Miles

    Attorney and community activist Anee Marie Miles announced in a press release on Dec. 3 she would consider running for the 2nd Congressional District seat vacated by Jesse Jackson Jr. However, Miles had not filed by the Feb. 7 deadline. Miles ran unsuccessful bids against fifth ward Alderman Leslie Hairston,<a href="" target="_hplink"> first in 2011 to unseat the alderman</a>, and again in 2012 in a race for the ward's role of Democratic Committeeman.

  • OUT: Donne Trotter

    Illinois Sen. Donne Trotter, D-Chicago, listens to testimony during a Senate Executive committee hearing at the Illinois State Capitol Wednesday, May 30, 2012 in Springfield Ill. Trotter <a href="">told Crain's he is "in the race</a>" in November and his campaign continued <a href="" target="_hplink">despite his arrest on a federal weapons charge</a>. Nevertheless, in late December, Trotter was <a href="" target="_hplink">ready to drop out of the race</a>. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

  • OUT: David Miller

    Former Illinois Rep. David. Miller argues mass transit funding legislation while on the House floor during session at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., Thursday, Jan. 17, 2008. Miller's name <a href="">has been floated in multiple media reports</a> on the upcoming special election. As of the Feb. 7 filing deadline, Miller had not officially entered the race.

  • OUT: Sam Adam Jr.

    Sam Adam Jr., one of the former attorneys for ex-Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, listens to testimony to the Illinois house impeachment committee January 8, 2009 in Springfield, Illinois. <a href="">Adam is considering a congressional run</a>. As of the Feb. 7 filing deadline, however, Adams was nowhere to be seen on the ballot.

  • OUT: Sandi Jackson

    In this Feb. 16, 2011 file photo, Chicago Alderman Sandi Jackson, wife of U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., is seen in her Chicago office. Jackson <a href="">had previously discussed her congressional aspirations</a> and <a href="" target="_hplink">told DNAinfo Chicago to "never say never</a>" to her taking a stab at the seat for a story published on Dec. 10. Later that day, however, she decided to say never: she proclaimed to the Associated Press that <a href="" target="_hplink">she is not running for Congress</a>.

  • OUT: Will Burns

    Chicago Alderman Will Burns walks in the Bud Billiken Parade. <a href="">Burns was reportedly interested</a> in succeeding Jackson in Congress. "We'll see," he told CBS Chicago. However, Burns <a href="" target="_hplink">tweeted on Nov. 30</a> he would not seek Jesse Jackson Jr's seat.

  • OUT: Jonathan Jackson

    Rev. Jesse Jackson, left, gets hugs from sons Jonathan, center, and Yusef following his speech at the Democratic National Convention on Aug. 15, 2000, in Los Angeles. Jonathan Jackson is <a href="">rumored to be considering a run in the special election</a>, according to the Associated Press. In late November, NBC Chicago handicapped the race, <a href="" target="_hplink">speculating the odds of Jonathan Jackson running to be 12-1. </a> However, in a Dec. 18 report on Fox Chicago, <a href="">Jackson said he will not be running</a> in the race.

  • OUT: Toni Preckwinkle

    Though Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has consistently denied rumors that she is interested in running for other offices -- most recently, for Illinois governor -- <a href="">her name was also being floated as a possible Jackson successor</a>. On Dec. 4, Preckwinkle <a href="">called such rumors "complete and total nonsense</a>."

  • OUT: Todd Stroger

    In this June 28, 2006 file photo, Todd Stroger answers a question at a news conference after a Chicago City Council meeting. <a href="">Stroger was interested in Congress</a>, the Sun-Times reported. <strong>UPDATE:</strong> DNAinfo Chicago reports Stroger <a href="">is no longer considering a congressional run</a>.