THE NOTE: A Wedding and Some Funerals

It's a day for at least one political funeral: Former mayor Rudolph Giuliani brings his campaign to a weary close in California.

Former governor Mike Huckabee limps on, though mainly, it seems, to play spoiler (and perhaps to audition for a spot on a ticket).

And former Senator John Edwards makes his way out of the race on Wednesday as well, with a speech in New Orleans, where he launched his campaign 13 months ago. (Finally, he'll get the media attention he's been craving.)

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But at the same time, an uneasy marriage is coming together to define the 2008 race. The long, strange trips of Sen. John McCain and the Republican Party take them back to where they started -- into each other's arms. Mostly, they're smiling for the cameras.

Florida's thunderclap delivered McCain the biggest prize yet in the primary season, and the state's 57 (or 114) delegates are an afterthought. McCain, R-Ariz., is now the clear frontrunner in a race that's finally coming into focus, with former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., bringing his checkbook to a fight that could be settled Feb. 5.

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"The results were a decisive turning point in the Republican race, effectively winnowing the field to Mr. McCain and Mr. Romney, two candidates with very different backgrounds who have little affection for one another but share a similar challenge in winning over elements of the party suspicious of their ideological credentials," Michael Cooper and Megan Thee write in The New York Times.

McCain won by nearly 100,000 votes, in a sprawling, unwieldy state where he was -- again -- badly outspent, and in a state where independents couldn't be his salvation. It was Republicans who chose McCain over Romney, even if they weren't happy doing it.

"Florida Republicans listened to Roberta McCain: They held their noses and voted for her son," Wes Allison and Jennifer Liberto write in the St. Petersburg Times. The victory gave McCain the "mantle of Republican front-runner and bath[ed] him in a glow of national electability only a week before 21 other states make their picks for the GOP nominee."

"Romney held an advantage over the half of voters who made their decision on the issues, but McCain countered with a strong showing among the remaining half who preferred leadership and personal qualities," ABC's Peyton Craighill and Brian Hartman write in summing up the exit polls. One particularly troublesome data point: "McCain did better than his main rival among economy voters, a group that Romney had hoped to dominate."

Giuliani, R-N.Y., plans to endorse McCain on Wednesday in California, and he'll get out of the race and behind his friend before Wednesday night's Republican debate at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., with a 3 pm ET event scheduled, ABC's Jake Tapper reports.

Rudy's concession speech Tuesday evening sounded every bit like the farewell it was: "We ran a campaign that was uplifting," Giuliani said. "The responsibility of leadership doesn't end with a single campaign."

Rudy's endorsement matters not just in parts of the country where he can be an effective McCain surrogate, but in echoing a Republican rallying cry. McCain can now consolidate his support in advance of Super Tuesday, with the growing perception that he will clinch the nomination.

McCain "took control of the battle for the Republican presidential nomination -- a prospect that seemed almost unthinkable just a few months ago," Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post.

The victory "delivered a 'take-that' message to naysayers who question the iconoclastic Arizona senator's acceptance by the Republican establishment," Beth Reinhard and Casey Woods write in the Miami Herald. Said McCain (seeming a bit astonished himself): "An all-Republican primary!"

After detours through a Huckaboom, a drafted Fred who went AWOL, and Ron Paul moneybombs, there are now two serious Republican presidential candidates left. The McCain-Romney battle will center on the same questions the race has struggled with for months: Who best represents the dispirited GOP coalition?

The attacks have been flying for months, and Romney offered a hint of what's ahead on ABC's "Good Morning America" on Wednesday: It's a battle over the conservative core.

"What will happen across the country is that conservatives will give a good thought to whether or not they want to hand the party's nomination over to Sen. McCain," Romney told ABC's Robin Roberts. "He has not been their champion over the last several years. I think there will be a movement within the Republican Party to coalesce around a conservative candidate."

Romney also raised the possibility that former governor Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., would stay in the race primarily to take votes away from him, in an effort to boost McCain's prospects: "Mike Huckabee, of course, might stay in, and that may be one of the reasons he does so, is to try and split that conservative vote."

The next battle is set: 8 pm ET Wednesday night in Simi Valley, at the Los Angeles Times/Politico/CNN debate.

"Republicans aren't often ones to fight over core party principles, but they do often feud over who is the more authentic conservative. That fight is likely to define the contests to come," Mike Tackett writes in the Chicago Tribune.

"That is why Romney will keep challenging McCain's front-runner status in the more than 20 contests on Feb. 5 -- and why the Republicans' race is only marginally clearer than the Democrats'."

This is Romney suffering for his pariah status inside the presidential field: Rudy gets out to help McCain beat Romney, and Huck stays in to help McCain beat Romney. (Who wants to kick whose teeth in now?)

Huckabee, R-Ark., is technically still a candidate, but a distant fourth is essentially fatal for a campaign that's flat broke. "Huckabee continues to siphon conservative voters from Romney -- and may be jockeying for a spot on the GOP ticket," the AP's Ron Fournier writes.

"It all adds up to front-runner status for McCain, the Vietnam War hero who was rejected by the GOP in 2000 and is only now being embraced -- however reluctantly -- by establishment Republicans who can't afford to walk away from a winner."

Romney has a complicated path back into contention. "Romney may be running to lead a Republican Party that no longer exists," Time's Michael Scherer writes.

"As has become increasingly clear, the ideological coalition Romney so eagerly courted no longer controls the fate of the GOP, at least in the early voting states. . . . Romney tried to run as the establishment candidate, only to find that the establishment no longer held the power."

The race is so scattered that even Mitt's millions may not help now. "Romney vowed to regroup and take his campaign across the country this week, but he is less well-known than McCain and will have to score victories in states where he is currently trailing in the polls to stay close to McCain in numbers of delegates," Peter Canellos writes in The Boston Globe.

Just like there are two Republicans left, there are also two Democratic presidential candidates -- if by "presidential candidate," one means a person who has a realistic chance of actually becoming president.

As Edwards abandons his movement of a candidacy today in New Orleans (he has no plausible path to the nomination, or even to the 200-plus delegates Joe Trippi wanted him to collect by convention time), there's at least one candidate who has an idea for what he should do next.

Sen. Barack Obama told ABC's Terry Moran on Tuesday that he asked Edwards to endorse him, in a private conversation. "There is no doubt that I would love John's support, but I also respect the fact that he is in this contest," Obama said in a "Nightline" interview that aired Tuesday night, with Obama praising Edwards as a "formidable candidate."

And his trip back to his grandfather's hometown, in Kansas, had a political purpose for a candidate who's looking to red states that vote Feb. 5. "The purpose of this trip is to explain that there are a set of values and roots here in the Midwest, and that although Kansas is now considered this red state, irrevocably Republican, that there are connections between all of us," said Obama, D-Ill.

Next up on "Nightline": Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton sits down with ABC's Cynthia McFadden for a Wednesday evening feature.

Obama travels to Denver on Wednesday, site of the 2008 Democratic National Convention, to "frame this campaign as a choice between the past and the future," per his campaign.

A (sharp) excerpt: "It's time for new leadership that understands that the way to win a debate with John McCain is not by nominating someone who agreed with him on voting for the war in Iraq; who agreed with him in voting to give George Bush the benefit of the doubt on Iran; who agrees with him in embracing the Bush-Cheney policy of not talking to leaders we don't like; and who actually differed with him by arguing for exceptions for torture before changing positions when the politics of the moment changed."

Clinton's quest for delegates took her through delegate-free Florida Tuesday night -- and the campaign succeeded in at least the temporary perception of victory. Clinton, D-N.Y., cracked 50 percent -- if just barely -- and allowed her to talk about something other than South Carolina or Ted Kennedy.

"Hillary Clinton's victory Tuesday in Florida took some sting out of a resounding South Carolina defeat and gives her the bragging rights that come with winning the biggest, most diverse state to vote so far," the Miami Herald's Lesley Clark writes.

"But the win bears two major caveats. . . . It awards zero delegates to the national convention, and it came in the absence of campaigning in the state by the candidates." h

"In a political stunt worthy of the late Evel Knievel, the Clinton campaign decided to put on an ersatz victory party that, it hoped, would erase memories of Obama's actual victory Saturday night in South Carolina's Democratic primary," The Washington Post's Dana Milbank writes.

"It was a perfect reproduction of an actual victory speech, delivered at a perfectly ersatz celebration at a perfectly pretend location: a faux Italianate palace with lion sculptures, indoor fountains and a commanding view of Interstate 595."

But something potentially more meaningful to the Democratic race started happening on Tuesday: new potholes appeared on Obama's road ahead -- only some of them created by the landmines of a still-feisty Camp Clinton.

There's another Tony Rezko headline: "Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama announced Tuesday that he would give to charity an additional $72,650 in 2004 political donations associated with his onetime patron, Antoin Rezko, who faces corruption charges in Chicago," Dan Morain writes in the Los Angeles Times. (Running tally: $149,985.)

(At least Rezko himself won't make much more news: He's been ordered behind bars until his trial starts Feb. 25, ABC's Brian Ross and Sara Kenigsberg report.)

There's new scrutiny of the independent groups who are spending on Obama's behalf: "After months of denouncing the influence of special-interest money in politics, Senator Barack Obama is nonetheless entering a critical phase of the presidential campaign benefiting from millions of dollars being spent outside campaign finance rules," Leslie Wayne writes in The New York Times.

And there are fresh reverberations from the State of the Union "snub" -- a made-for-tabs-and-cable piece of outright silliness that the Clinton campaign is more than happy to keep alive.

Clinton relished every one of these words, in an interview with Fox News' Chris Wallace: "Well, Chris, I reached out my hand in friendship and unity and my hand is still reaching out. And I look forward to shaking his hand when I see him at the debate in California."

That's right, the two leading Democratic contenders cannot even agree on whether a handshake was offered. Obama said he wheeled around just as the cameras clicked because another colleague was speaking to him, and said he wasn't ignoring Clinton: "I waved at her as we were coming into the Senate chamber before we walked over," he told reporters, per ABC's Sunlen Miller.

"I think there's a lot more tea leaf reading going on here than I think people are suggesting."

Edwards, D-N.C., has a 1 pm ET speech scheduled in New Orleans, in which he will get out of the race with the same themes and backdrops he entered with. Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards cancelled campaign events in Alabama and North Dakota to deliver his farewell speech today in New Orleans, where he launched his presidential bid 13 months ago.

Get all the candidates' schedules in The Note's "Sneak Peek."

Also in the news:

It's not an endorsement, but former President Jimmy Carter is . . . excited. "Obama's campaign has been extraordinary and titillating for me and my family," Carter said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal's Douglas A. Blackmon. (Obamagirl, where are you when we need you?)

Carter added that he had a long telephone conversation with his fellow ex-president on Monday: Bill Clinton "has said a few things that I think he wishes he hadn't said," Carter said. "He doesn't call me often, but the fact that he called me this morning and spent a long time explaining his position indicates that it's troublesome to them, the adverse reaction."

Speaking of which . . . it's been quiet on the Bill beat, hasn't it? "The Big Dog was wearing a muzzle," Helen Kennedy writes in the New York Daily News.

"After the furor over his attacks on Barack Obama culminated in Ted Kennedy's stunning repudiation -- anointing the young Illinois senator as the heir to his family's storied legacy -- a chastened Clinton was on his best behavior."

Asked whether her husband contributed to her lopsided defeat in South Carolina, Sen. Clinton told the Daily News' editorial board, "It may have." "It's hard to sort out all the different factors that influence people's perceptions and their votes," she added.

Anyone think he's behaving now by accident? "Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton's ever-watchful campaign aides still seemed nervous that the former president would serve up a rerun of the kind of comments that set off a major controversy in South Carolina last week," The New York Times' Christopher Maag reports.

"Reporters were shooed away from the rope line and sternly warned not to ask any questions as Mr. Clinton posed for photos with hundreds of supporters after the speech."

A taste of what's ahead for McCain: "Conservative talk radio is ganging up on presidential candidate John McCain, attacking him for joining Democrats to push liberal legislation," Donald Lambro writes in the Washington Times.

"Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney appears to be the favorite of conservative talk-radio stars and stands to benefit from their distaste for the Arizona senator, who is running neck and neck with Mr. Romney in the race for the presidential nomination."

With McCain's rise comes big helpings of crow for conservative powers-that-be. "Nervous pundits may be spared their embarrassment if Mr. Romney can survive Florida and Super Tuesday," Jennifer Rubin writes in the New York Observer.

"However, if he does not, they will have to mull over the choices to explain why their favored sons failed."

Yet the fight's not over yet: John McCain won a personal victory in Florida Tuesday night," The Nation's John Nichols writes.

"But he still has not won the Republican ideological battle that will continue through Super Tuesday and perhaps deep into February and March."

"Should John McCain's big victory here in Florida vault him to the Republican nomination, it will raise serious questions about how much influence conservative activists and opinion makers actually have over the GOP electorate," the American Spectator's Philip Klein writes.

"Few Republicans are as reviled by elite conservatives as McCain. On a litany of issues, including immigration, campaign finance reform, judicial nominations, and taxes, McCain has angered important constituencies within the conservative movement."

Giuliani's defeat was a defeat for a strategy that never really seemed to gel, Michael Leahy and Michael Shear write in The Washington Post. "Irrelevance felled him before the foes ever arrived," they write.

"The strategy was always a do-or-die gamble, complicated by a sobering reality: No one has ever captured a presidential nomination after going winless in a race's first six primaries and caucuses, as Giuliani has done. Last night, the campaign's bet turned into a bust."

"As Mr. Giuliani ponders his political mortality, many advisers and political observers point to the hubris and strategic miscalculations that plagued his campaign," Michael Powell and Michael Cooper write in The New York Times.

"He allowed a tight coterie of New York aides, none with national political experience, to run much of his campaign."

"He accumulated a fat war chest -- he had $16.6 million on hand at the end of September, more than Mitt Romney ($9.5 million) or Senator John McCain ($3.2 million) -- but spent vast sums on direct mail instead of building strong organizations on the ground in South Carolina and New Hampshire."

Politico's Ben Smith and David Paul Kuhn see the end of an era: "Rudy Giuliani's distant third-place finish in Florida may put an end to his bid for president, and it seems also to mark the beginning of the end of a period in Republican politics that began on Sept. 11, 2001."

Could an Ah-nold endorsement be next for McCain? "At his annual address to the Sacramento Press Club, Governor [Arnold] Schwarzenegger stopped short of endorsing a Presidential candidate, but it's clear he's leaning toward his dear friend, Senator John McCain," per a KABC-TV write-up.

Said Schwarzenegger, R-Calif.: "I enjoy him because he also, of course, is someone who's working on the environment and believes strongly that you can have a strong economy and good environment."

The Obama campaign wasted no time in putting some Kennedys on the air. "People always tell me how my father inspired them. I feel that same excitement now," Caroline Kennedy says in the campaign's new TV spot, with pictures of her father cutting to pictures of Obama. "Barack Obama can lift America and make us one nation again."

In case you missed it in the presidential shuffle, ANOTHER House Republican announced that he's not running for reelection: Rep. Ron Lewis, R-Ky., became the fourth GOPer to forego another term just since last Thursday. That makes 27 House seats opening up that were occupied by Republicans at the start of the 100th Congress; only six Democrats have announced that they're leaving.

The kicker:

"The beast is dead." -- Ed Koch, exulting over the fact that one of successors as mayor of New York was beaten in Florida, to ABC's Mark Mooney.

"Don't expect to be part of the inheritance; I'm not sure there's going to be much left after this." -- Mitt Romney, thanking his supporters in Florida Tuesday night.

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