John McCain appeared as the clear front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination with a victory in the hotly contested Florida primary, lining up a quick endorsement from soon-to-be dropout Rudy Giuliani before next week's coast-to-coast contests.
The Republican nomination fight finally has boiled down to a two-man race between the Arizona senator and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney after a year of volatility that made 2008 the party's most wide-open race in half a century.
Democrat John Edwards was exiting the presidential race Wednesday, essentially making the Democratic race a two-candidate contest between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama. However, it is expected that Edwards will drop out of the race too.
Edwards, a two-time White House candidate, notified a close circle of senior advisers that he planned to make the announcement at a 1 p.m. EST (1800 GMT) event in New Orleans, according to two of his advisers.
The former North Carolina senator and millionaire trial lawyer was not able to compete with Obama and Clinton's star power. He came in second to Obama in Iowa, an impressive feat of relegating Clinton to third place, before coming in a distant third in the following three contests.
His loss in South Carolina on Saturday was especially hard because it was where he was born and he had won the state in 2004.
Clinton won a largely symbolic victory over Barack Obama in the Democratic race in Florida. No delegates were at stake and no candidates campaigned there because of a dispute between the state and national parties over the date of the primary.
Still, Clinton, locked in a tight race with Obama, looked for her wide margin of victory to boost her campaign ahead of next week's "Super Tuesday," when her party holds 22 state contests.
McCain's victory in Florida was worth 57 Republican National Convention delegates, a winner-take-all haul that catapulted him ahead of Romney for the overall delegate lead.
More than 1,000 Republican delegates will be awarded on Feb. 5 in 21 primaries and caucuses. A total of 1,191 delegates are needed to secure the nomination at this summer's Republican national convention.
McCain, a veteran Arizona senator and former Vietnam prisoner-of-war, had been the early front-runner in the race and has rebounded after his campaign collapsed last year. Yet many Republican's core conservative base remain wary of him, considering him too much of a maverick.
But with McCain's victory in Florida, there were signs he may be breaking through as the choice of the party establishment and a candidate able to unite all wings of the Republican Party. If so, he may be unstoppable.
A disappointed Romney promised to press on after his second place finish following a tough Florida battle in which he traded insults and accusations with McCain. He said Wednesday that McCain may not be conservative enough to win the nomination.
"I think what will happen across the country is that conservatives will give a good thought to whether or not they want to hand the party's nomination over to Senator McCain," Romney said on ABC's "Good Morning America."
Romney needed a strong showing in Wednesday night's Republican debate in California to put the brakes on McCain's march to the nomination.
The once-crowded field is set to grow thinner Wednesday when Giuliani, the former New York mayor, drops out of the race and endorses McCain. That could help McCain in delegate-rich, more moderate states slated to vote next week, like California, New York and Illinois. But it also could give Romney fodder to claim that McCain is not the truest conservative in the race, because Giuliani is seen as liberal on social issues.
Giuliani ran a distant third in Florida. It was his best showing of the campaign, but not nearly good enough for the one-time front-runner who decided to make his last stand in a state that is home to tens of thousands of transplanted New Yorkers.
Among the others, Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and Baptist preacher who won Iowa, remains in the race, but has little money and finished a distant fourth in Florida. He could however split the conservative vote with his strong support among the religious right, a possible boost for McCain.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul has made no move to withdraw even though he scores in single digits in voting.
Returns from 99 percent of Florida's precincts showed McCain, with 36 percent of the vote and Romney, with 31 percent. Giuliani trailed with 15 percent, Huckabee had 13 percent, and Paul, 3 percent.
In the race for delegates to the national party convention, McCain (93) leads, followed by Romney (59), Huckabee (40), Paul (4) and Giuliani (1).
McCain has argued that he alone has the experience to be a wartime commander in chief. Romney, with two-decades of work in the private sector, claims he is best able to turn around an economy bearing down on a recession.
The campaign has grown increasingly bitter, with both candidates accusing the other of supporting liberal policies.
Clinton and Obama have also had harsh exchanges, but both toned down the rhetoric ahead of Tuesday's contests, in which 1,600 delegates are at stake. A total of 2,025 delegates are needed to secure the Democratic nomination at the party's convention in August.
Clinton was traveling Wednesday to Arkansas, where her husband, former President Bill Clinton, had been governor. She also planned to fly to Atlanta for a Democratic Party dinner.
Obama was heading for Denver and then Phoenix for campaign rallies in states with big Hispanic populations, an important constituency and one for which the two are competing hard.