WASHINGTON (AP) -- John McCain clinched the Republican presidential nomination Tuesday, an extraordinary comeback for a candidate whose White House hopes were dashed eight years ago and whose second bid was left for dead eight months ago.
According to The Associated Press count, the four-term Arizona senator surpassed the requisite 1,191 GOP delegates as voters in Ohio, Vermont, Rhode Island and Texas put him over the threshold. The triumph came one month after his Super Tuesday coast-to-coast victories gave him an insurmountable lead in the delegate hunt and forced his chief rival, Mitt Romney, to drop out of the race.
"It's a very humbling experience," he said of finally clinching the nomination in an AP interview.
McCain was heading to the White House on Wednesday. Republicans won't officially nominate McCain until early September at the GOP's national convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul.
Nevertheless, the general election campaign for the Republican nominee-in-waiting begins now even though Democrats still haven't chosen a candidate. Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton continue a protracted battle for their party's nod, leaving McCain an opportunity to unify his party.
"The big battle's to come," he said of the general election.
After racking up wins in states across the country, McCain entered Tuesday's contests with 1,014 delegates, 177 short of what he needed. McCain won all 17 delegates in Vermont, and at least 69 in Texas, 58 in Ohio and nine in Rhode Island, according to early returns. McCain also picked up about 30 endorsements from party leaders who will automatically attend the convention.
In anticipation of the accomplishment, workers earlier in the evening prepared to hoist a five-foot-tall banner reading "1191," the number of delegates he needed, in the Dallas hotel ballroom where he planned to speak.
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 George W. Bush as the party's standard-bearer and president. At one point, the crowded field reached a dozen.
Only former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Texas Rep. Ron Paul remain but it's now impossible for either to become the nominee. Despite calls for him to clear the way for McCain, Huckabee has said he would stay in the race until a candidate secured the needed pledged delegates. He was planning to head home to Arkansas to discuss his next move with advisers. Paul has not indicated when he will concede but his departure is inevitable.
McCain's feat caps a remarkable turnaround for a man 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.
But staff infighting and financial troubles quickly rocked the campaign. Money was spent faster than 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.
Next up is uniting a GOP that's somewhat disgruntled over his candidacy.
McCain still doesn't have unanimous support among RNC members, even though he has been the likely nominee for several weeks.
About 126 RNC members will attend the convention as free agents. About 50 have declined to endorse McCain, according to the latest tally by Associated Press. Some said they felt obligated to stay neutral while the nomination was still in doubt. Others raised concerns about McCain's conservative credentials.