MIAMI " Sen. John McCain won a breakthrough triumph in the Florida Republican primary Tuesday night, edging past former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and seizing precious campaign momentum for next week's string of contests across 21 states.
"It shows one thing: I'm the conservative leader who can unite the party," the Arizona senator said in a brief interview with The Associated Press. "It's a very significant boost, but I think we've got a tough week ahead and a lot of states to come."
The victory was worth 57 national convention delegates for McCain, a winner-take-all's haul and the largest single prize to date in the race.
Rudy Giuliani was in third place, his best showing of the campaign but possibly not good enough to warrant continuing.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee trailed but told supporters he would forge on.
MIAMI (AP) " John McCain solidified his status as the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination with a Florida triumph, his candidacy having come full circle in little more than a year.
"It shows one thing. I'm the conservative leader who can unite the party," the Arizona senator said in a brief interview with The Associated Press.
He was hesitant to give himself a label and was mindful of the challenges ahead, saying: "It's a very significant boost but I think we've got a tough week ahead and a lot of states to come."
The Florida win continues an extraordinary comeback from last summer when his campaign nearly imploded. McCain rebounded to win New Hampshire and South Carolina before rolling up Florida and its winner-take-all 57 delegates.
In the final days of the campaign, he picked up sought-after endorsements from the top two elected Republicans in the state " Sen. Mel Martinez and Gov. Charlie Crist.
"Having those people behind us was certainly very helpful," McCain said, also naming a trio of Miami-based members of Congress, Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
McCain heads into next week's 20-plus contests " that includes mega-delegate states California and New York " with an enormous amount of momentum after having won two straight contests.
He began his campaign just over a year ago as the presumptive Republican leader. He cast himself as the inevitable nominee in a party that historically has nominated the next guy in line. That distinction appeared to fall to McCain, given his 2000 loss to George W. Bush.
Running a front-runner's campaign to match his seeming front-running status, McCain mixed loyalists from his first campaign with veterans of Bush's two successful efforts to build an unrivaled, and enormous, national organization.
He argued that he was the only Republican who could unite a wayward party reeling from a 2006 thumping that put Democrats back in control of Congress.
That appearance of invincibility quickly shattered.
Internally, infighting rocked the campaign. Money was being spent faster than it came in, and finger-pointing ensued. Top aides vied for primacy making it appear that no one person was in charge and McCain was not invested in the race.
Longtime McCain aides clashed with one-time Bush aides.
Externally, Iraq and immigration took a political toll; his advocacy for a troop-increase strategy hurt him with independent voters while his backing for an eventual path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants infuriated the GOP's conservative base.
His standing in polls dropped and fundraising dried up.
By summer, the campaign had blown through nearly all of the $25 million it had raised, and McCain had accepted the resignations of two top aides and promoted a third to manage what was left of the campaign. Money troubles meant dozens of layoffs while loyalty to the departed aides prompted others to flee.
McCain laid low in August, working to stabilize his campaign's finances and seeking to map out a road ahead with a narrower strategy. He hoped he could still emerge as the last man standing if the GOP field remained fractured.
Thus, he began his comeback with wins in New Hampshire and South Carolina.
He looked to Florida to cement his returned status " and Florida delivered.