And now there are two
Expected pullouts by Edwards and Giuliani after Florida votes turn US presidential contests into two-horse races.
IT IS now a face-off for both the Republicans and the Democrats in the race to the White House.
In a remarkable turnaround, Republican John McCain, the Arizona senator, has bounced back to reclaim the front runner position – his anointed status at the start of the election season – after winning a crucial victory in the Florida primary.
Meanwhile, rival Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor who was once the favourite to secure the Republican party nomination, is expected to drop out of the race after coming in third.
And in a dramatic development for the Democrats, Mr John Edwards was said by his campaign spokesman to be dropping out too.
He was due to make an announcement at 1pm yesterday (2am today, Singapore time) in New Orleans.
The result has settled what was once a muddled race into a two-horse contest on both sides: Mr McCain versus former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney on the Republican side, and Mrs Hillary Clinton versus Mr Barack Obama for the Democrats.
Mrs Clinton easily defeated her rival, but her victory was largely symbolic in an uncontested race.
Florida was stripped of its delegates by the national party for holding the primary early, and none of the candidates campaigned there.
Mrs Clinton and Mr Obama are fighting tooth and nail for the Democratic nomination as they go into a critical near-national primary next Tuesday, almost evenly split with the number of victories thus far.
Mr Edwards, a former North Carolina senator, is now expected to throw his support behind Mr Obama, according to sources.
Tuesday’s contest in Florida represented the most dramatic outcome for the Republicans. It was a decisive turning point for the party – and Mr McCain, a 71-year-old Vietnam War veteran.
He beat Mr Romney by 36per cent to 31 per cent.
The two candidates had split the last four of the state-by-state nominating contests: Mr McCain won in South Carolina and New Hampshire and Mr Romney carried Michigan and Nevada, the latter a state scarcely contested by other Republicans.
Mr Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist preacher and former Arkansas governor, won the kick-off contest in Iowa.
“Our victory might not have reached landslide proportions, but it is sweet nonetheless,” Mr McCain told supporters chanting “Mac is back” in Miami. “We have some way to go but we’re getting close,” he said.
His win gives him all of Florida’s 57 delegates at the party’s national nominating convention in September.
Mr McCain garnered the popular vote from voters that included seniors, veterans, moderates and independents. His victory showed that he could also win over Republican voters.
With his earlier successes fuelled by independents, observers had believed that it would be hard for him to do well in Florida and many of the 22 states holding nominating contests next Tuesday, in which only registered Republicans can vote in its primary.
Older and military voters in particular were impressed with his national security experience. The McCain campaign was able to shift focus away from the economy, where Mr Romney has the upper hand, to the war in Iraq, which had greater appeal with these voters.
Many in Florida also saw him as having the best chance to beat the Democrats in the November presidential election – and his vitriolic attacks against Mrs Clinton added to his appeal among sceptical conservative voters.
Compared to his rival, Mr Romney won more broadly among conservatives. He also won narrowly among Republicans. This gives him hope that he can put up a good fight next week.
“I think it’s time for the politicians to leave Washington and for the citizens to take over,” he said after the Florida contest.
“At a time like this, America needs a president in the White House who has actually had a job in the real economy.”
Mr Huckabee said that he planned to compete in the Super Tuesday contests, but with successive defeats, he stands little
chance of making the nomination now.
Mr Giuliani, who has staked his whole campaign on a high-risk strategy of winning in Florida – home to tens of thousands of transplanted New Yorkers – garnered just 15 per cent, two points ahead of Mr Huckabee.
He is expected to endorse Mr McCain who will go into battle next week even stronger, in an ironic reversal of fortunes for the two rivals in what has been a roller-coaster election.