Senator John McCain has taken pole position in the Republican White House race, having secured Rudolph Giuliani's endorsement and with California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger poised to follow suit.
Fresh from a crucial victory in Tuesday's Florida primary, the Arizona senator won the key backing of Giuliani on Wednesday as the former New York mayor and hero of Sept. 11 announced his exit from the race.
Giuliani's withdrawal and the surprise early departure of Democrat John Edwards dramatically narrowed the field of White House hopefuls, effectively leaving the Republican and Democratic contests as a pair of two-horse races.
After a high-risk campaign that ended with a whimper in Florida, Giuliani gave long-time pal McCain the stamp of approval, hailing the former pilot as an "American hero."
"Today I'm officially announcing my withdrawal as a candidate for president of the United States," Giuliani said. "John McCain is the most qualified candidate to be the next commander-in-chief of the United States."
McCain, once given up for lost after almost running out of money last year, is now the clear Republican pace-setter after scoring another victory over Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in Florida's nominating contest.
McCain's campaign was set to receive another burst of star power yesterday with the endorsement of Schwarzenegger. The Los Angeles Times and CNN both reported that Schwarzenegger -- who like Giuliani holds views often at odds with the Republican right wing -- is expected to endorse McCain.
McCain and Schwarzenegger are to hold a press conference in California after touring a solar technology plant.
Schwarzenegger was in the audience at the Reagan Presidential Library outside Los Angeles on Wednesday as McCain and Romney clashed repeatedly in a heated televised debate.
Romney accused the McCain campaign of waging a dirty tricks campaign by suggesting that Romney had previously advocated a phased withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.
"I have never ever supported a specific timetable for exit from Iraq. And it's offensive to me that someone would suggest that I have," Romney fumed.
Romney also took aim at McCain over the Arizona senator's endorsement this week by the left-leaning New York Times newspaper.
"If you get endorsed by the the New York Times, you're not a conservative," Romney said.
McCain swiftly shot back, pointing out that he had won the endorsement of Romney's two hometown newspapers.
Earlier, in a surprise move, former senator Edwards dropped out of the Democratic contest, transforming the campaign into a historic fight between bitter rivals senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
"It's time for me to step aside so that history ... can blaze its path," Edwards told a rally in New Orleans, Louisiana, in a decision which came after he failed to win a single nominating contest.
Edwards said both the leading Democratic hopefuls had pledged to him that they would take up his cause of championing the middle-class and ending poverty in the US. But he did not endorse either of his rivals.
Despite coming a respectable second to Obama in the very first vote in Iowa at the start of the month, Edwards, 54, whose wife Elizabeth has incurable cancer, has failed to shine since, limping in third in all the other primaries so far.
Meanwhile, Giuliani will be wondering if there is a curse on New York's City Hall after he became the latest victim of a political urban legend -- that New York City mayors who aim for higher office will always miss out.
Giuliani's bid for the Republican presidential nomination collapsed after a stunning defeat in Tuesday's Florida primary, where he had pinned all of his hopes as part of his unorthodox strategy of paying less attention to smaller, early-voting states.
The two-term mayor's dramatic slide from the front of the presidential pack renewed discussion of whether the office is under a political spell.
The last New York City mayor who succeeded at ascending to higher office was John Hoffman, who won his bid for governor in 1869.
The last mayor to be elected to any office after serving in City Hall was Ardolph Loges Kline, who was briefly mayor in 1913 and later served as a congressman.
The notable losers in addition to Giuliani include John Lindsay, who ran for president in 1972 and failed to win the Democratic nomination. In 1982, Ed Koch made a run for governor but lost in the Democratic primary to Mario Cuomo.
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