WASHINGTON - President Bush on Friday rallied his party's conservative wing to unite behind the Republican nominee in the battle for the presidency, but avoided mention of John McCain, the leading candidate and presumed winner who has a history of clashing with his party's right flank.
Democrats Barak Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, meanwhile, looked to upcoming weekend contests as they strove for an advantage in their tight and historic bids for the White House.
Bush still is not ready to weigh in formally on the race, even though Republican Mitt Romney announced on Thursday that he was suspending his campaign, virtually sealing the nomination for McCain.
Bush is priming his party's conservative base to get ready to back the veteran senator.
"The stakes in November are high. This is an important election. Prosperity and peace are in the balance," Bush told about 2,000 people attending the Conservative Political Action Conference. "So with confidence in our vision and faith in our values, let us go forward, fight for victory and keep the White House in 2008."
Romney's decision to suspend his campaign, announced Thursday, marked a remarkable turnaround for McCain, a former Vietnam prisoner-of-war whose campaign some seven months ago was barely viable, out of cash and losing staff.
White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said Bush's remarks were not intended to rally the party around McCain. "There are several candidates in the race," Stanzel said. "We have a vigorous campaign going on." He said Romney's departure "gets us one step closer to having a nominee. We're not there yet."
McCain still has to win over some right-wing members of his party upset by his prior support of a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and stances on global warming and campaign finance reform that break with the conservative party line.
As part of that effort, McCain told the conservative group in a speech Thursday that he cannot succeed without their support, and any differences within the party are eclipsed by his differences with chief Democratic rivals Clinton and Obama.
The Democrats were competing for 161 delegates Saturday in Washington state, Louisiana, Nebraska and the Virgin Islands, followed by Maine caucuses with 24 delegates on Sunday.
Obama won the last-minute endorsement Friday of Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire. Both candidates had courted her — Obama speaking with her four times. Washington's senators, both women, back Clinton.
In strongly Republican and sparsely populated Nebraska, Obama spoke to the huge crowd at an Omaha arena Thursday, exhorting: "You're here because you don't want to just be against something. You want to be for something.
Obama was the only candidate campaigning in all four states. Clinton told a spirited rally of 5,000 supporters at a Seattle cruise ship terminal Thursday night that she's "a fighter and a doer and a champion for the American people." She also planned to campaign in Maine.
Clinton and Obama both have an eye on the round that follows — the trio of races Tuesday in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C. — and the New York senator in particular was gearing her campaign toward the high stakes primaries in Ohio and Texas on March 4.
The Democratic rivals are locked in an exceedingly tight battle for their party's nomination. Battling for every dollar and delegate, Obama raised $7.2 million (euro4.9 million) the wake of Tuesday's multistate primary contests, and Clinton rallied to keep pace with him, pulling in $6.4 million (euro4.4 million).
The stunning totals reflect the intensity of their historic neck-and-neck race for the Democratic presidential nomination. Obama would be the first black U.S. president; Clinton would be the first woman to win the White House.
Romney, who sought to be the first Mormon U.S. president, said he decided to drop out of the race to avoid hurting the Republican Party's chances at taking the general election in November, suggesting that a win by Clinton or Obama equals a surrender to terrorism.
Preacher-turned-politician Mike Huckabee remains in the race, but is far behind in the delegate hunt. Huckabee picked up an endorsement Thursday from James Dobson, one of the country's most prominent evangelical Christian leaders.
"We still believe that there's a chance to win this thing," Huckabee told reporters Friday after a rally in the Kansas City suburb of Olathe. "I've spent my whole life fighting from the bottom, I've never been at the top."
Democrats have high hopes of winning the White House since the Republican Party has been closely associated by voters with the unpopular Bush, who on Friday reached his lowest approval rating in The Associated Press-Ipsos poll with only 30 percent.
Clinton had 1,045 delegates, to 960 for Obama, out of the 2,025 needed to secure victory at the party convention in August. Clinton's advantage is partly due to her lead among so-called superdelegates, members of Congress and other party leaders who are not selected in primaries and caucuses — and who are also free to change their minds.
Results from Tuesday's New Mexico Democratic caucus have still not been finalized. State officials were still reviewing ballots in the close race.