Republican John McCain said he was "fired up and ready to go" against either Democratic presidential contender as he celebrated primary victories Tuesday in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.
"We do not yet know for certain who will have the honor of being the Democratic Party's nominee for president," McCain said of Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton. "But we know where either of their candidates will lead this country, and we dare not let them."
He told supporters at a hotel in Alexandria, Va.: "My friends, I promise you, I am fired up and ready to go."
McCain seemed to aim much of his rhetoric at Obama and his message of hope and optimism. The knock against the 46-year-old Obama is his lack of experience; he is serving his first term as an Illinois senator.
"Hope, my friends, hope is a powerful thing," said McCain, who at 71 is a four-term senator from Arizona.
McCain cautioned: "To encourage a country with only rhetoric rather than sound and proven ideas that trust in the strength and courage of free people is not a promise of hope. It's a platitude."
Recalling his struggle as a Vietnam prisoner of war, McCain said he discovered then "that nothing is more liberating in life to fight for a cause that encompasses you, but is not defined by your existence alone."
"I do not seek the presidency on the presumption that I am blessed with such personal greatness that history has anointed me to save my country in its hour of need," said McCain, a former Navy pilot who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam after his plane was shot down.
"I seek the presidency with the humility of a man who cannot forget that my country saved me," he said.
As the prohibitive leader in the race for Republican convention delegates, McCain is all but assured of the GOP nomination, even though former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee hasn't made it easy with his stubborn insistence on remaining in the race.
Huckabee embarrassed McCain on Saturday by winning contests in Kansas and Louisiana and coming close enough in Washington state to challenge the results.
Even so, McCain was generous, praising Huckabee as a gifted communicator and advocate who is a credit to the Republican Party.
"He certainly keeps things interesting, a little too interesting at times tonight, I must confess," McCain said. "But I have even more reason to appreciate just how formidable a campaigner he is."
Huckabee sounded more combative, arguing that he made a strong showing among rural voters in a region where McCain has lived since winning election to the House in 1982.
"I've never lived a day in that region; he spent the last 25 years there," Huckabee said in Little Rock, Ark.
McCain had big trouble with Huckabee's base of support in Virginia; there, 63 percent of white, born-again Christians supported Huckabee, according to exit polls. Among conservatives, a group that includes the born-again Christian vote, Huckabee was supported by 51 percent, while McCain had a 2-to-1 lead among moderate voters.
In a twist, McCain showed unexpected weakness among independents in Virginia, where they were about evenly divided between Huckabee and McCain. However, McCain carried independents in Maryland, according to the exit poll for The Associated Press and the television networks.