MIAMI (AP) – John McCain has emerged as the man to beat for the Republican nomination.
Only Mitt Romney stands in his way.
"We have a ways to go, but we are getting close," a gleeful McCain told supporters shortly after clinching Florida's primary. A disappointed Romney promised to press on.
The GOP nomination fight finally has boiled down to a two-man race after a year of volatility that made 2008 the most wide-open GOP nomination fight in half a century.
In one corner: McCain, the four-term Arizona senator and former Vietnam prisoner of war arguing that he alone has the experience, judgment and leadership to be a wartime commander in chief.
In the other corner: Romney, a former Massachusetts governor with two-decades of work in the private sector who claims he is best able to turn around an economy bearing down on a recession.
The once-crowded field is set to grow thinner Wednesday when former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani — who went 0-7 in contests — drops out of the race and endorses McCain. That could help McCain in delegate-rich, more moderate states slated to vote next week, like California, New York and Illinois. But it also could give Romney fodder to claim that McCain isn't the truest conservative in the race.
Among the others, Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor who won Iowa, remains in the nomination hunt but has little money and has scored in the teens or below in five of the seven contests so far. Texas Rep. Ron Paul has made no move to withdraw even though he scores in single digits in voting.
That leaves only McCain and Romney with a serious shot at the nomination.
McCain has momentum working on his side from back-to-back wins; Romney has money and proven fundraising skills.
In the race for delegates to the national party convention, McCain (93) leads, followed by Romney (59), Huckabee (40), Paul (4) and Giuliani (1).
Up next on Tuesday: 21 GOP contests offering 1,023 of the 1,191 delegates needed to secure the nomination.
"In one week, we will have as close to a national primary as we've ever had in this country. I intend to win it and be the nominee of our party," McCain declared.
Romney, no doubt, will do whatever he can to prevent that, including, if absolutely necessary, pouring more of his own fortune into his campaign. He's already contributed some $40 million to his own bid, and hasn't been shy about criticizing his rivals from the TV airwaves or while he campaigns.
Thus, the next seven days promise to be a dog fight.
No love lost between them, McCain and Romney spent the run up to Florida's primary bitterly sparring over national security and the economy. Both campaigns are gearing up for another rough-and-tumble week in which negative campaigning probably will spike even higher.
"Who is it that has got the experience and background and knowledge to take on the challenge of radical Islamic extremism? Governor Romney has no experience there," McCain said early Tuesday in a preview of what's to come.
Romney, for his part, slapped at McCain, saying: "One of the candidates out there running for president said that the economy is not his strong suit; well, it's my strong suit."
The coming week is all but certain to get personal.
McCain's campaign views Romney as a serial flip-flopper who doesn't have a core set of beliefs and who changes his positions for political reasons. Romney's campaign sees McCain, 71, as a candidate whose time has passed and who isn't loyal to Republican ideals.
The sparks could start Wednesday night in California when the Republicans still in the race debate at Ronald Reagan's presidential library in Simi Valley, Calif.
There were signs Tuesday in Florida that McCain may be breaking through as the choice of the party establishment and a candidate able to unite all wings of the Republican Party. If so, he may be unstoppable.
Polling as people left voting stations showed McCain won among Republican moderates, Hispanics, Florida's numerous older voters and people who ranked the economy as their top issue, while Romney relied on a solid backing from conservatives and people troubled by illegal immigration and abortion.
McCain made progress among people calling themselves Republicans; he had been relying chiefly on independents, moderates and other groups on the periphery of the GOP for his strength in previous contest. Lately, he has shown signs of appealing to party regulars.
As if to cap off his ascension as the race's current front-runner, voters picked McCain as the most electable GOP candidate for the general election and most qualified to be commander in chief, with more than four in 10 naming him for each.
Liz Sidoti covers the Republican presidential race for the Associated Press.