The US presidential race has turned into virtual two-horse contests among both Democrats and Republicans as John Edwards and Rudy Giuliani ended their faltering bids ahead of the Super Tuesday coast-to-coast battles.
"It is time for me to step aside so that history can blaze its path," said Edwards, the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee, in New Orleans on Wednesday leaving the field to former first lady Hillary Clinton and Senator Barack Obama, engaged in a bitter struggle for the party ticket.
Edwards, who finished a poor third in his native South Carolina and largely symbolic Florida primaries on Tuesday, did not immediately endorse either Obama, hoping to be America's first black president, or Clinton seeking to the nation's first woman chief executive.
"We do not know who will take the final steps to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (the White House), but what we do know is that our Democratic Party will make history..." he said alluding to the fact that regardless of who gets the nomination it would be the first time a black or woman gets a major party's ticket.
But it did not stop either Obama or Clinton from wooing Edwards, who could still play king or queen-maker with his supporters.
Clinton, who easily won Tuesday's Florida primary with no delegates after her massive defeat at the hands of Obama in black dominated South Carolina, said she looked forward to "reaching out" to Edwards' supporters.
Obama said Edwards "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."
All the candidates had agreed not to campaign in Florida after the state moved the primary to Jan 29 in violation of Democratic national party rules. Because of that and because Edwards repeatedly had said he would continue to press his campaign, his decision came as somewhat of a surprise.
Unlike Edwards, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who had staked his candidacy on Florida, promptly endorsed the campaign of John McCain, giving the Vietnam War veteran a boost before the crucial Feb 5 nomination contests in 22 of the 50 US states.
"I'm officially announcing my withdrawal as a candidate for the president of the United States," Giuliani said Wednesday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California before a debate between the remaining party candidates.
With Tuesday's Florida winner McCain by his side, Giuliani said McCain "is the most qualified candidate to be the next commander-in-chief of the United States."
McCain was "prepared to be the president of the United States at a time of great peril," said Giuliani outlining the qualities he felt were needed in a president. He "thought I was that person. The voters made a different choice."
McCain's Florida win, his third in four primaries completed an improbable journey from written-off candidate to front-runner for Republican nomination.
Rival well-heeled former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney may have lost a bit of momentum, but he still has delegates from wins in the Michigan primary and the Wyoming and Nevada caucuses.
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee said he would fight on, but he is poorly financed and hasn't notched a win since his surprise victory in the very first caucuses in Iowa.
McCain's challenges next week include a dozen Republican contests that bar independents. In a Florida survey for TV networks, he split Republicans with Romney. Among voters who were registered GOP but called themselves independents, McCain won 2-1
Meanwhile, Ralph Nader, the long-time consumer advocate who was blamed by many Democrats for Nobel Prize winner Al Gore's loss in the 2000 presidential election to George Bush, launched an exploratory committee Wednesday for another White House bid.
"John Edwards, the banner of Democratic Party populism, is dropping out, and Dennis Kucinich dropped out earlier, so in terms of voters who are at least interested in having major areas of injustice, deprivations, and solutions discussed in a presidential campaign, they might be interested in my exploratory effort," Nader said.
Nader said he finds Clinton and Obama both unacceptable candidates, and he said whichever wins the party's presidential nomination would not have an impact on his decision to run.
"They are both enthralled to the corporate powers," Nader said of the two leading Democrats. He expressed particular disappointment with Obama, whose senate record he called "mediocre, and quite cautious."
Nader attracted close to 100,000 votes in Florida in 2000 - a state Al Gore ultimately lost to Bush by about 500 votes. He brushes aside suggestions his candidacy this year may ultimately spoil the election for the Democratic Party.