WASHINGTON - John McCain effectively sealed the Republican presidential nomination on Thursday as chief rival Mitt Romney suspended his faltering campaign. 'I must now stand aside, for our party and our country,' Romney told conservatives.
'If I fight on in my campaign, all the way to the convention, I would forestall the launch of a national campaign and make it more likely that Senator Clinton or Obama would win. And in this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror,' Romney told the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.
Romney's decision leaves McCain as the top man standing in the GOP race, with Mike Huckabee and Texas Rep. Ron Paul far behind in the delegate hunt. It was a remarkable turnaround for McCain, who some seven months ago was barely viable, out of cash and losing staff. The four-term Arizona senator, denied his party's nomination in 2000, was poised to succeed George W. Bush as the GOP standard-bearer.
Commenting on his front-runner status - a title he had and lost last year - McCain told the conference, 'This time I now have that distinction and I prefer to hold onto it for quite a while.'
McCain and Romney spoke by phone after Romney's speech, though no endorsement was requested nor offered, according to a Republican official with knowledge of the conversation.
Within hours of Romney's speech, former Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman endorsed McCain and urged all members of the GOP to back him.
'Our party has had many outstanding candidates this year, but it is now time for Republicans across the country to unite,' Mehlman said.
McCain prevailed in most of the Super Tuesday states, moving closer to the 1,191 delegates needed to win the nomination at this summer's convention in St. Paul, Minn. Overall, McCain led with 707 delegates, to 294 for Romney, 195 for Huckabee and Paul at 14.
Romney suspended his campaign, allowing him to hold onto his delegates. However, if McCain secures their support - combined with his own delegates - he would be nearly at the magic number and Huckabee would be mathematically eliminated. It is unlikely Romney would throw his support to Huckabee; the animosity between the two has pervaded the GOP race.
Romney launched his campaign almost a year ago in his native Michigan. The former Massachusetts governor and venture capitalist invested more than $40 million of his own money into the race, counted on early wins in Iowa and New Hampshire that never materialized and won just seven states on Super Tuesday, mostly small caucus states.
McCain took the big prizes of New York and California.