Mike Huckabee, the last remaining obstacle in McCain’s path, withdrew from the race and offered his support to McCain.
Minutes later, McCain took the stage along with his wife, Cindy, to thank voters from the four states and claimed the prize he was denied eight years ago by President George W. Bush.
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“And I am very, very grateful and pleased to note that tonight, my friends, we have won enough delegates to claim with confidence, humility and a great sense of responsibility that I will be the Republican nominee,” McCain said here to loud applause from supporters.
On Wednesday, McCain begins the process of taking over the party apparatus from the man he lost to in 2000.
He’ll meet in the White House with Bush and then head over to the Republican National Committee to meet with Chairman Mike Duncan and top officials there.
The symbolic meetings are meant to convey a passing of the torch and to underscore McCain’s role as the party’s standard bearer.
It is a role few saw McCain fulfilling when his campaign crashed last summer. Broke, reduced to only a handful of loyal aides and plummeting in the polls, McCain hung tough and pinned his longshot hopes on a New Hampshire victory and the GOP electorate’s reluctance to embrace any of his rivals.
Which is exactly what happened.
McCain noted his improbable success tonight, calling it “an accomplishment that once seemed to more than a few doubters unlikely.”
And when Mitt Romney withdrew from the race on February 7th, it became nearly inevitable that McCain would win his party’s nomination.
After Huckabee called him to concede tonight, it became official.
"My commitment to him and the party is to do everything possible to unite our party, but more important to unite our country so that we can be the best we can be,” Huckabee told his supporters in nearby Irving after placing the call to McCain.
McCain returned the favor by calling Huckabee his friend and “a great and fine and decent American.”
In his speech, McCain previewed his coming general election themes – reiterating that he would make the war central to the debate.
“I will defend the decision to destroy Saddam Hussein's regime,” McCain said to applause from the Republican crowd, before adding a reminder for the broader audience at home, “as I criticized the failed tactics that were employed for too long to establish the conditions that will allow us to leave that country with our country's interests secure and our honor intact.”
He also suggested he would hew to the traditional GOP line of attack by labeling the candidate who emerges as his Democratic opponent as insufficiently devoted to free enterprise and overly wedded to government solutions.
“I will leave it to my opponents to claim that they can keep companies and jobs from going overseas by making it harder for them to do business here at home,” McCain said, promising “lower taxes and less regulation.”
“I will leave it to my opponent to propose returning to the failed, big government mandates of the sixties and seventies to address problems such as the lack of health care insurance for some Americans,” he said, promising health care reforms and cost control measures that don’t endanger the current system.
Despite the elation of the moment, McCain and the GOP face a difficult task. Retaining the White House for three consecutive terms is no easy feat. Andwith an unpopular Republican incumbent, deep concerns about an uncertain war, a shaky economy and a better-funded and more-energized Democratic party, it will be that much more challenging for the Republicans to win this fall.
“The party obviously has to regain its brand on fiscal responsibility,” said Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), a up-and-coming young conservative present at the McCain party tonight.
But he said McCain, with his hawkish spending credentials and cross-over appeal, was well-positioned at a time when the party is imperiled and in need of a makeover.
And Republicans have something else going for them – a hard-fought Democratic race that apparently will continue past tonight.
“I never thought I would root for Hillary Clinton, but it’s going to be fun watching this thing go on for a while,” said Hensarling with a smile.