John McCain has taken pole position in the Republican White House race, having secured Rudolph Giuliani’s endorsement and with California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger poised to follow suit.

Fresh from a crucial victory in Tuesday’s Florida primary, the Arizona senator won the key backing of Giuliani Wednesday as the former New York mayor and hero of 9/11 announced his exit from the race.

Giuliani’s withdrawal and the surprise early departure of Democrat John Edwards dramatically narrowed the field of White House hopefuls, effectively leaving the Republican and Democratic contests as a pair of two-horse races.

After a high-risk campaign that ended with a whimper in Florida, Giuliani gave long-time pal McCain the stamp of approval, hailing the former pilot as an “American hero.”

“Today I’m officially announcing my withdrawal as a candidate for president of the United States,” Giuliani said. “John McCain is the most qualified candidate to be the next commander-in-chief of the United States.”

McCain, once given up for lost after almost running out of money in mid-2007, is now the clear Republican pace-setter after scoring another victory over Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in Florida’s nominating contest.

McCain’s campaign was set to receive another burst of star power on Thursday with the endorsement of Schwarzenegger, less than a week away from the crucial “Super Tuesday” primary in delegate-rich California.

The Los Angeles Times and CNN both reported that Schwarzenegger — who like Giuliani holds views often at odds with the Republican right wing — is expected to endorse McCain.

McCain and Schwarzenegger are to hold a press conference in California after touring a solar technology plant.

Schwarzenegger was in the audience at the Reagan Presidential Library outside Los Angeles on Wednesday as McCain and Romney clashed repeatedly in a heated televised debate.

Romney accused the McCain campaign of waging a dirty tricks campaign by suggesting that Romney had previously advocated a phased withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.

“I have never ever supported a specific timetable for exit from Iraq. And it’s offensive to me that someone would suggest that I have,” Romney fumed.

Romney also took aim at McCain over the Arizona senator’s endorsement this week by the left-leaning New York Times newspaper.

“… If you get endorsed by the ‘The New York Times,’ you’re not a conservative,” Romney said.

McCain swiftly shot back, pointing out that he had won the endorsement of Romney’s two hometown newspapers.

Earlier, in a surprise move, former senator Edwards dropped out of the Democratic contest, transforming 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 nominating contest.

The Democratic race is now set for a head-to-head clash between Clinton, aiming to be America’s first woman president, and Obama, bidding to be its 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 at the start of the 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 percent of the vote, in a boost to her campaign ahead of next week’s Super Tuesday when 22 states will vote for their party candidates.

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.

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