ORLANDO, Fla. — Rudy Giuliani, who bet his presidential hopes on Florida only to come in third, prepared to quit the race Tuesday and endorse his friendliest rival, John McCain.
The former New York mayor stopped short of announcing he was stepping down, but delivered a valedictory speech that was more farewell than fight-on.
A senior Giuliani official told NBC that he will endorse McCain on Wednesday in California, where Republicans are set to debate at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley.
Giuliani finished a distant third to winner McCain and second-place finisher Mitt Romney.
"I'm proud that we chose to stay positive and to run a campaign of ideas in an era of personal attacks, negative ads and cynical spin," he said as supporters with tight smiles crowded behind him.
"You don't always win, but you can always try to do it right, and you did," he said.
Asked directly if he was dropping out of the race, Giuliani said only: "I'm going to California."
Tuesday's result was a remarkable collapse for Giuliani. Last year, he occupied the top of national polls and seemed destined to turn conventional wisdom on end by running as a moderate Republican who supported abortion rights, gay rights and gun control.
"Elections are about fighting for a cause larger than ourselves," he said at one point, echoing one of McCain's most popular refrains.
Giuliani relied on Florida
The results seriously decimated Giuliani's unconventional strategy, which relied heavily on Florida to launch him into the coast-to-coast Feb. 5 nominating contests.
He largely bypassed the early voting states, figuring that the early states would produce multiple winners and no front-runner.
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But Florida proved to be less than hospitable. The state's top two Republicans — Sen. Mel Martinez and Gov. Charlie Crist — endorsed McCain. And Giuliani, who once led in state polls, saw his support swiftly erode.
Surveys of voters leaving polling places Tuesday showed that Giuliani was getting backing from some Hispanics, abortion rights supporters and people worried about terrorism, but was not dominating in any area.
McCain, addressing his own supporters moments later in Miami, gave Giuliani a warm rhetorical embrace, a possible prologue to accepting Giuliani's expected support.
"I want to thank my dear friend, my dear friend Rudy Giuliani, who invested his heart and soul in this primary and who conducted himself with all the qualities of the exceptional American leaders he truly is," McCain said. "Thank you Rudy for all you have added to this race and being and for being an inspiration to me and millions of Americans."
Giuliani hung his bid for the Republican presidential nomination on his leadership. His stalwart performance as New York mayor in the tense days after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks earned him national magazine covers, international accolades and widespread praise.
'Responsibility of leadership'
Yet, Giuliani was always a Republican anomaly — a moderate-to-liberal New Yorker who backed abortion rights, gay rights and gun control in a party dominated by Southern conservatives.
In the end, as he saluted his backers Tuesday night, Giuliani hardly sounded wistful. But his remarks had the air of finality, of a campaign that had run its course.
"The responsibility of leadership doesn't end with a single campaign, it goes on and you continue to fight for it," Giuliani said. "We ran a campaign that was uplifting."
Giuliani, 63, first gained prominence as a crime-busting federal prosecutor in Manhattan. During a nearly seven-year stretch ending in 1989, Giuliani steered dozens of high-profile cases to completion, garnering more than 4,000 convictions. He tangled with mob bosses, Wall Street executives and corrupt politicians — and was never afraid to invite the bright lights of TV cameras to accompany his quests.
Giuliani's record as a crime-fighter helped propel his next career as a politician, but it wasn't an immediate success. He lost the first time he ran for mayor in 1989 before winning in 1993.
As mayor, he fostered a take-charge image by rushing to fires and crime scenes to brief the press, but some critics felt he was more concerned about taking credit from others for what became a historic decline in the city's crime rate during his tenure.
And, while the cleanup of New York in the 1990s helped the city take advantage of the nation's economic boom, critics — especially in minority communities — complained that Giuliani's tactics were too aggressive and trampled on civil rights.
A bout with prostate cancer and the very public breakup of his marriage with second wife Donna Hanover — she first learned he was filing for divorce when he made the announcement at a televised news conference — forced Giuliani to withdraw from a race for the U.S. Senate against Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2000.
By the summer of 2001, public esteem for Giuliani was at a low ebb. On the morning of Sept. 11, Giuliani did what he always did: rushed to the scene.
In the minutes, hours, and days that followed, he presented a calm, determined presence — urging people not to panic, but reminding them of the grim toll of the terrorist attacks. The image of a dusty, sweaty Giuliani walking near Ground Zero, surrounded by firefighters and police, was seared into the national memory.
'Tower of strength'
In December 2001, Time magazine named him "person of the year" and its cover showed Giuliani standing atop a skyscraper in front of the New York City skyline with the label "Rudy Giuliani — tower of strength."
In the years after the attacks, that reputation helped launch a hugely successful consulting business, and got him a major piece of a Washington, D.C.-based law firm with a long list of big corporate clients.
Yet, while Giuliani has long been known as efficient and tough-minded, he also can be brusque, rude and occasionally harsh.
His past associations in business and politics have come under scrutiny. President Bush, at Giuliani's urging, nominated Bernard Kerik, the former New York police commissioner and one-time close associate of Giuliani to head the Homeland Security Department. Kerik withdrew his nomination, and later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor of accepting a gift from a company suspected of ties to organized crime.
In the final days of his Florida campaign, the former mayor trailed badly in polls but insisted he would win an upset victory. As the actual votes were counted, only about one in six GOP voters chose Giuliani.
With no working strategy, no primary victories, and dwindling resources, the mayor's third-place finish spelled the end of his campaign, even if his crestfallen supporters couldn't believe it.
"They'll be sorry!" a woman with a New York accent called out to the mayor as he spoke. "You sound like my mother," Giuliani joked.
The Associated Press and NBC's John Yang contributed to this report.