‘The contest begins tonight,’ McCain says 

John McCain, Cindy McCain
John McCain celebrates with his wife, Cindy, and supporters in Dallas on Tuesday night.Stephan Savoia / AP
/ Source: NBC, msnbc.com and news services

Sen. John McCain of Arizona claimed the GOP nomination Tuesday after rolling up one-sided victories in primaries in Ohio, Texas, Rhode Island and Vermont.

"I am very pleased to note that tonight, my friends, we have won enough delegates to claim with confidence, humility and a sense of great responsibility that I will be the Republican nominee for president of the United States," the 71-year-old McCain told cheering supporters in Dallas.

"The contest begins tonight," the former Navy fighter pilot and prisoner of war in Vietnam said, looking ahead to a match-up with either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton in the Nov. 4 General Election. Both the remaining Democratic candidates called McCain and offered their congratulations, their campaigns said.

"Our campaign must be, and will be more than another tired debate of false promises, empty sound bites, or useless arguments from the past that address not a single American's concerns for their family's security," said McCain.

Over the top, according to projections
According to projections by NBC News and the Associated Press, Tuesday’s victories gave McCain a total of 1,205 delegates, 14 more than the 1,191 required to secure the Republican nomination. The projection is based on both delegates pledged to the four-term senator from Arizona and those who have told the AP they will vote for him.

President Bush invited McCain to the White House for lunch on Wednesday — and an endorsement. The two will make a joint statement afterward.

"The president has said he looks forward to vigorously campaigning for the GOP and tonight it has become clear that the GOP nominee will be Senator John McCain," said White House press secretary Dana Perino. "Of course the president is going to endorse the GOP nominee which is going to be Senator John McCain."

Meanwhile, Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, McCain's main remaining rival, said he was .

"I called Sen. McCain a few minutes ago," he told supporters in Irving, Texas. "... I extended to him not only my congratulations but my commitment … to do everything possible to unite our party, but more important our country."

"We fought the good fight ... and stayed in until the race was over," he added.

Republicans won't officially nominate McCain until early September at the GOP's national convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

This is McCain's second run at the nomination, after his loss to George W. Bush in 2000.

McCain brings a war hero's pedigree to the race. A Navy pilot, he was shot down over Vietnam in 1967, on his 23rd combat mission. He spent 5 1/2 years in captivity, including two in solitary confinement, and was subjected to frequent beatings and torture.

The delegate milestone effectively ends the bruising GOP primary fight that began just days after the November 2006 congressional elections when a slew of Republicans launched candidacies to succeed Bush as the party's standard-bearer and president. At one point, the crowded field reached a dozen.

Rep. Paul is last rival left
Only Texas Rep. Ron Paul remains but it's impossible for him to become the nominee. He has not indicated when he will concede but his departure is inevitable.

McCain's feat caps a remarkable turnaround for the senator who began running for president roughly a decade ago when he plotted a bid to overtake Bush, the then-Texas governor and establishment favorite. Back then, the Republican with a long reputation of bucking the party shocked Bush and much of the GOP with his come-from-nowhere double-digit win in New Hampshire. The race turned nasty as it moved to South Carolina, and McCain's bid never recovered from a loss there.

Nonetheless, that campaign put McCain — already somewhat known because of his Vietnam war-hero biography — on the national political map and set the stage for his campaign sequel.

Over the next few years, McCain sought to mend his relationship with the Bush political machine and conservatives who make up a cornerstone of the party. He embraced the president and campaigned for him during his successful re-election bid. He also reached out to the party's right-flank and its leaders like the late Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson who he once derided.

McCain also laid the groundwork for his second White House campaign.

He melded veteran Bush operatives with McCain loyalists from 2000 to build an unrivaled -- and gigantic — national campaign organization. The loser in 2000, he cast himself as the inevitable nominee in a GOP that historically has nominated the next in line, and the only Republican who could unite a wayward party reeling from a 2006 thumping that put Democrats back in control of Congress.

Staff infighting, money troubles
But staff infighting and financial troubles quickly rocked the campaign. Money was spent faster than it was collected, and fundraising targets were not met. Top aides vied for primacy. Longtime McCain aides clashed with one-time Bush aides. All that led to a major staff overhaul and an empty bank account — a near unraveling — last summer.

By July, 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.

He took a hit, too, politically with his embrace of the Iraq war that independents opposed and comprehensive immigration reform that conservatives detested. As a result, his standing in polls dropped and fundraising dried up.

Determined to press on, McCain basically started from scratch.

He mapped out a long-shot road ahead with a one-state strategy, hoping he could still emerge as the last man standing if the GOP field remained fractured in part because the influential conservative wing had not rallied around a candidate.

Out of options and short on cash, he turned again to New Hampshire, which viewed him as almost a native son given his attention in 2000.

New Hampshire ended up delivering again, and a victory there led to hard-fought wins in South Carolina, Florida, a slew of delegate-rich states on Super Tuesday Feb. 5, and, ultimately, the nomination.