WASHINGTON - The race for the White House narrowed abruptly Wednesday to twin two-way battles, party maverick John McCain the man to beat for the Republican nomination while the Democrats faced a historic choice between a woman and a black man.
'I have the leadership and the conservative record,' declared McCain, closing in on the prize he has sought for most of a decade following his Florida primary triumph over Mitt Romney.
Big names were falling fast. After more than a year of almost constant campaigning, Democrat John Edwards was suddenly out of the race, and Republican Rudy Giuliani wasn't far behind, the latest casualties as the survivors sprinted toward next week's Super Tuesday slew of primaries and caucuses across more than 20 states.
Edwards said he was stepping aside 'so that history can blaze its path,' a reference to a riveting contest between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama for the 2,025 delegates needed for the Democratic nomination.
Giuliani, a former front-runner whose candidacy collapsed quickly once the primaries and caucuses began, endorsed McCain in glowing terms. The Arizona senator 'is the most qualified candidate to be the next commander in chief of the United States. He is an American hero,' Giuliani said with McCain at his side in California.
That left Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, confronting a decision on how many millions more of his own fortune - if any - to spend on an increasingly longshot bid for the White House. Officials said options prepared for his consideration ran from a bare-bones efforts costing less than $1 million to a robust $7 million commitment, much of it ticketed for television commercials in California.
Republicans converged on California for an evening debate involving McCain, Romney, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Texas Rep. Ron Paul. Republicans in 22 states select a total of 1,023 convention delegates next week.
Obama and Clinton battled on roughly equal footing across a vast, uncertain political landscape, Democratic primaries in 15 states and caucuses in seven more plus American Samoa with 1,681 delegates at stake on Tuesday.
Obama said it was time for a change, and he was the man to provide it.
The former first lady made a homecoming campaign swing through Arkansas, where she lived for 18 years, much of it while her husband was a popular governor.
She called for a cap on credit card interest rates of 30 percent, to be lowered in the future, as well as new protections for consumers who use plastic. 'We need more disclosure, more transparency,' she said. 'We've got to go after this predatory lending.'