ORLANDO, Fla., Jan. 30, 2008— -- As was the plan even before Rudy Giuliani's Florida firewall turned to ash, the former mayor boarded a plane to California Wednesday morning.
Once there, instead of participating in the Republican debate, he droped out of the presidential race and endorsed Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
"John McCain is the most qualified candidate to be the next commander in chief of the United States," Giuliani said, announcing his decision at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley. "He's an American hero."
Before the announcement, on the afternoon flight from Dallas to Burbank, Giuliani told reporters that he was disappointed not to stay in the Republican race for the White House but that he was proud to be supporting McCain.
"I think I made it clear during a debate that if I had not been running, I would be supporting John McCain. So I'm not running, and I'm supporting John McCain and he is far away the best person to be the commander in chief of the United States," Giuliani said.
On the plane. Giuliani also acknowledged a "great significance" in making his announcement and endorsement at the Reagan Library.
"Ronald Reagan had a high regard for John McCain. John McCain also sees Ronald Reagan as his hero. So we share that very much in common. Obviously it is fortuitous that we can do it there, since the debate is gonna be there tonight," Giuliani said.
Giuliani explained his McCain endorsement "is not a why not Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee. I admire both men," Giuliani explained. "I went through a unique experience with them for a long time. I have grown to respect them. I am convinced that John McCain is the best choice for president of the United States."
Giuliani said it was too early to tell if he would run for public office again.
"I found in life, when you make a never statement, you could still change your mind, but you have it up on YouTube nowadays," he said with a laugh. "All I can tell you is my intention is to be in private life. I am gonna give some thought to exactly how."
Following the Florida primary results, Giuliani's postelection speech to a modest crowd of supporters at the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel in Orlando delivered the message that his campaign was over fairly clearly.
He kept his humor about him. Responding to a friendly cheer from the audience, Giuliani laughed and quoted "the great American philosopher Yogi Berra. … 'It's not over until it's over.'"
But with Giuliani's poor showing, far behind McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, in a state he said he had to win, it was clearly over, Berra's maxim notwithstanding.
"Like most Americans," Giuliani said, "I love competition. I don't back down from a principled fight, but there must always be a larger purpose -- justice for an individual, hope for a city, a better future for our country. Elections are about a lot more than just candidates."
Negotiations between the Giuliani's and McCain's campaigns were still ongoing as Florida returns came in, with ABC News and other organizations projecting a McCain win in the Sunshine State. But sources close to both campaigns confirmed the plan.
"We ran a campaign that was uplifting," Giuliani said, not officially leaving the race but speaking in the past tense. "The responsibility of leadership doesn't end with a single campaign. If you believe in a cause, it goes on and you continue to fight for it, and we will."
He thanked his wife. He thanked his campaign manager. He thanked his senior advisers.
It was a farewell address.
Giuliani even made a joking reference to his more moderate views on social issues -- abortion, guns, gay and lesbian rights -- that alienated many in the Republican base.
"We are the party of the people," he said. "And we're a big party. We're a big party, and we're getting bigger. I'm even in this party. This is a big party."
After his speech, when reporters asked him what he would do next, all Giuliani would say was that he was flying to California.
His endorsement would not come as a surprise.
Even as a candidate himself, campaigning in Iowa, Giuliani said, "I happen to be a very big admirer of Sen. McCain, and I can tell you quite honestly that if I weren't running for president I would be here supporting him. If for some reason I made a decision not to run, he'd be my candidate."
After Giuliani left the ballroom Tuesday evening, McCain came on stage in Miami.
"I want to thank, my dear friend Rudy Giuliani," McCain said, "who invested his heart and soul in this primary, and who conducted himself with all the qualities of the exceptional American leader he truly is."
Then in a clear indication he knew Giuliani was bowing out, McCain said, "Thank you for all you have added to this race, and for being an inspiration to me and millions of Americans."
Giuliani set up the Sunshine State as make or break, and it broke him.
On Election Day, plummeting polls hanging like a noose, Giuliani swung through southern Florida -- Miami to Fort Lauderdale to Pompano Beach to Del Ray Beach.
This was supposed to be his stronghold, but crowds were sparse.
Potential Giuliani supporters said they were concerned about wasting their vote by casting their lot with him. They wanted their ballot to mean something in the face-off between McCain and Romney.
Giuliani knew it was coming. His meetings with supporters and volunteers were bittersweet. Hugs and kisses. Farewell, friends.
As Giuliani entered the campaign's Broward County headquarters, the former New York Mayor was greeted by a tanned state representative in short sleeves.
"That first fundraiser," state Rep. Carl Domino, Giuliani's Palm Beach County coordinator, nostalgically said to him. Domino had hosted a fundraiser for Giuliani in his home March 31.
"You've been there from the beginning," Giuliani said, giving him a hug.
Domino seemed resigned to an imminent end to the campaign. And he said Giuliani's strategy of largely bypassing the early states and focusing everything on the Sunshine State was a mistake.
"You gotta show you can compete," he told ABC News, adding that decent showings in New Hampshire and South Carolina would have helped Giuliani immeasurably. "He didn't have to win, he just had to be competitive," Domino said. "But they didn't ask me."
When asked whether the strategy was a mistake, actor Jon Voight -- who endorsed and traveled with Giuliani throughout Florida -- said, "There will be time to assess all that after today, and maybe it should be assessed."
In Broward County headquarters, Giuliani grabbed one of the cell phones volunteers were using for phone banking.
"Javier asked me to call and see if you'd go out and vote for me," Giuliani said to the voter on the other end. "You will?"
He sounded almost surprised.
Just a few feet away, two Giuliani supporters -- matronly women from the area -- were conspicuously talking about whom they would support next.
"Romney's better than McCain," Diane Bee, a Coconut Creek resident and a member of the Broward County Republican Party, told Egle Calvino of Coral Springs. "I don't know what I'm gonna do if that McCain gets in there!"
Giuliani started the day with his suit jacket off, in Sunny Isles Beach, at a diner called Wolfie Cohen's Rascal House. He had some coffee and raisin bran.
"I voted already," Jane Weintraub, a transplanted New Yorker, told Giuliani.
More than 440,000 Florida Republicans have already voted through early voting and absentee ballots. Giuliani's campaign banked on those early votes, which started a few weeks ago, before his plummet in Florida polls was apparent.
But ultimately those early ballots didn't mean bupkes, or beans.
ABC News' Jan Simmonds contributed to this report.