WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Sen. John McCain clinched the Republican presidential nomination yesterday with a four-state sweep, earning valuable breathing space to prepare for the general election as top Democratic candidates keep battling.
Victories in Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont pushed McCain's delegate count above the 1,191 needed for the nomination, completing a remarkable comeback for a campaign that had appeared dead just months ago.
"Now, we begin the most important part of our campaign: to make a respectful, determined and convincing case to the American people that our campaign and my election as president, given the alternatives presented by our friends in the other party, are in the best interests of the country we love," McCain said during a victory speech last night.
The symbolic keys to the national Republican apparatus will be placed in McCain's hands today, when he meets President Bush for lunch at the White House. Bush has long said he would endorse whomever voters select as the party's nominee.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee withdrew from the race last night, saying it was "time to hit the reset button" on his political career.
Running on a shoestring budget, Huckabee stayed in the race long after it became clear that McCain would be the nominee, but there was no bitterness between the two campaigns. Speaking to supporters in Texas, Huckabee said he called McCain and "extended to him not only my congratulations but my commitment to him and to the party to do everything possible to unite our party."
The Republican campaign now moves into its next phase. McCain has six months before the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul to build a national campaign organization and solidify arguments about why he should be the next president.
"This is a critical time for McCain," said Scott Reed, a Republican strategist who managed Bob Dole's 1996 White House bid. "He's been given a gift, because the Democrats are still fighting, and it appears they will be fighting for another 60 days. He can focus on unifying the party, raising money and setting the election up on his terms."
The general election contest will be competitive, surveys show.
A compilation of recent national polls by the Web site RealClearPolitics shows McCain in a statistical tie with Sen. Hillary Clinton, and slightly trailing Sen. Barack Obama in hypothetical match-ups.
Money will be critical to the contest. With Democrats energized and excited, Obama took in $50 million last month and Clinton collected $35 million.
Filings with the Federal Election Commission show that McCain took in $12.75 million in January - the most recent data available.
While his approval rating remains stuck in the 30s, Bush remains a prolific fundraiser. The money he raises for the national party will provide McCain with sorely needed resources.
In recent weeks, as his grasp on the nomination tightened, McCain improved his standing among registered Republicans. Eight in 10 said they had a favorable view of the senator, according to a Pew Research Center survey released last month.
In Ohio, two-thirds of those voting yesterday in the Republican primary identified themselves as conservatives. Among those voters, 54 percent voted for McCain, while 37 percent backed Huckabee, an exit poll showed.
But McCain might be slipping with independent voters, a crucial component of the electorate. Just over half of independents told Pew pollsters they had a favorable view of McCain, down from 57 percent about three weeks earlier.
The slide coincided with the publication of a New York Times article that raised questions about McCain's relationship with a female lobbyist for the telecommunications industry. McCain is a past chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.
Backlash over the newspaper investigation helped rally conservatives behind McCain's candidacy, Reed said, and did not destroy his ability to reclaim independents as the election season unfolds.
"Independents are going to be the key to the election - they always are," he said. "And that is one of the main attractions for McCain. He is not a traditional Republican - in that he is conservative but he is also willing to cross party lines."
In the coming weeks, McCain is expected to hone his campaign message around a national security theme.
McCain has begun rolling out those arguments, criticizing Obama's comments that he would use military force if al-Qaida was building strength in Iraq. McCain used the opportunity to try to portray Obama as naive on national security, saying he had "news" for Obama that the extremist organization was already there.
Obama pushed back, saying he was willing to debate McCain on the merits and cost of the Iraq war at any time - an argument that is sure to be central to the general election contest, given McCain's support of a major troop presence in Iraq. McCain gave a further preview of his arguments in his speech last night in Dallas, saying he would "defend the decision to destroy Saddam Hussein's regime as I criticized the failed tactics that were employed for too long."
McCain will also begin the search for a running mate. He will almost certainly look for a much younger partner, to address concerns about his age. If he wins, McCain would be 72 when sworn in, the oldest first-term president ever.
OHIO (86% reporting)
x-McCain 60% Huckabee 31%
RHODE ISLAND (98%)
x-McCain 65% Huckabee 22%
x-McCain 52% Huckabee 37%
x-McCain 72% Huckabee 14%