Los Angeles: The battle for the White House narrowed dramatically on Wednesday as the exit of John Edwards and Rudolph Giuliani left Democratic and Republican front-runners in a pair of two-horse races.
In a surprise early withdrawal, former senator Edwards dropped out of the Democratic contest to transform the campaign into a historic fight between bitter rivals 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 contest.
On the Republican side, former New York mayor Giuliani pulled out and endorsed long-time pal John McCain after a high-risk campaign that ended with a whimper in Tuesday’s Florida primary defeat.
“I’m going to endorse John McCain,” Giuliani told reporters aboard a flight to California, where he was to make a formal announcement about his decision, CNN television footage showed.
“I have made it clear before I had to make this decision who I thought the other best candidate was. I think I made it clear in a debate that had I not been running, I’d be supporting John McCain,” he said.
With Edwards officially suspending his bid, the Democratic race is now set for a head-to-head clash between Clinton, aiming to be the first woman in the White House, and Obama, bidding to be America’s first black president.
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 United States. But he did not endorse either of his rivals.
Despite coming a respectable second to Obama in the very first vote in Iowa early this month, Edwards, 54, whose wife Elizabeth has incurable cancer, has failed to shine since, limping in third in all the other primaries so far.
He even admitted to getting his “butt kicked” in Nevada, where Clinton triumphed adding to her victories in New Hampshire and Michigan.
A hefty defeat in Florida late Tuesday proved to be the final blow for the former senator, who also lost his 2004 tilt at the White House.
Clinton coasted to a symbolic victory in Florida with 50%, in a boost to her campaign ahead of next week’s Super Tuesday when 22 states will vote for their party candidates.
Veteran Democratic strategist Donna Brazile said both remaining candidates could benefit from Edwards’s withdrawal: Obama might pick up those backers eager for change to add to his wins in Iowa and South Carolina, while Clinton could grab some of his hefty labor support.
“But long term, the candidate who talks about the plight of the poor, that champions the middle class, that talks about trade and health care will benefit from the support of John Edwards,” Brazile told CNN.
Obama paid tribute to Edwards saying he “has spent a lifetime fighting to give voice to the voiceless and hope to the struggling, even when it wasn’t popular to do or covered in the news.”
And Clinton said Edwards “ran with compassion and conviction and lifted this campaign with his deep concern for the daily lives of the American people.”
Clinton, 60, and Obama, 46, who have fought a bitter battle for voters, will again square off in a Democratic debate scheduled for Thursday in California.
Republican front-runners McCain and Mitt Romney were due to face off in a debate at the Reagan Library outside Los Angeles later Wednesday.
Arizona Senator McCain, who was once given up for lost after almost running out of money in mid-2007, was celebrating after winning in Florida late Tuesday, to become the clear Republican pace-setter.
McCain, 71, beat former Massachusetts governor Romney to take 36 of the vote, over 29% for Romney. Giuliani came in third with 15%, and ordained Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee won 13%.
Meanwhile, in a move which could cause shockwaves in the Democratic camp, veteran political activist Ralph Nader said he was mulling a White House bid.
He told AFP he had launched a presidential exploratory committee “to test the waters to see if we can get enough contributions and resources, such as skilled staff” to run as an independent.
Nader, widely blamed by Democrats for defeat in the 2000 elections, said he wanted to fight “the injustices, deprivations and insolutions that the candidates are ignoring” such as failing to address the need for a living wage,