As Voters Hit the Polls, Candidates Make Last-Minute Appeals

By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 5, 2008; 4:15 PM

Americans in 24 states began voting for presidential candidates in primaries, caucuses and a state convention today, as Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama jockeyed for front-runner status in a tight race and Republican John McCain looked to distance himself from his closest rival, Mitt Romney.

With Super Tuesday nominating contests taking place from New York to California, the candidates made last-minute appeals for support in the biggest round of primary voting in U.S. political history before scattering to their home states to cast their own ballots and await returns.

In interviews on morning news shows and in new political advertisements, they sought to distinguish themselves from their rivals and make the case for election as the nation's 44th president in November.

The first results of the day came from West Virginia, where former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee won the state's Republican convention. After none of the candidates won a majority in a first round of voting, Huckabee emerged with 51.5 percent of the 1,100 ballots cast by delegates in the second round. Romney, the first-round leader, followed with 47.4 percent.

Backers of McCain, who was a distant third in the first round, threw their support to Huckabee in the second round to prevent Romney from winning, the Associated Press reported.

The victory gave Huckabee 18 of the state's 30 delegate votes at the Republican National Convention. Huckabee took those pledged at-large delegates in a winner-take-all format. In addition, nine delegates to the national convention are to be chosen in a Republican primary on May 13, and three party leaders will attend the convention as unpledged delegates.

Romney, Huckabee and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas all appeared at the convention this morning and addressed delegates before the voting began. Speaking for McCain was former Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer .

Clinton, 60, a second-term senator from New York, voted in her state's Democratic primary at an elementary school in Chappaqua this morning and pitched herself as the candidate with the experience to bring about changes in economic and foreign policy.

Obama, 46, who is in his first term as a senator from Illinois, began the day in Massachusetts, one of several closely contested states that he hopes to wrest from Clinton. He portrayed himself on morning shows as the Democrat best able to make a "clean break" with the policies of President Bush and best positioned to defeat the Republican nominee in November. He was scheduled to vote later today in Chicago, where he planned to await primary and caucus results.

McCain and Romney continued to take shots at each other in television appearances and political ads in an increasingly bitter fight over who has the stronger conservative credentials -- a crucial consideration in many of the 21 states that hold GOP nominating events today.

McCain, 71, a four-term senator from Arizona, campaigned in delegate-rich California before a scheduled return to his home state to vote and attend an election-night party. Romney, 60, a former governor of Massachusetts and corporate executive, flew from California to attend West Virginia's Republican convention today before returning to Boston to vote in his state's GOP primary.

"That's pretty fun," Romney remarked to clerks at the ornate, 126-year-old Belmont Town Hall in an upscale suburb of Boston where he cast his ballot. "First time I've voted for myself for president." Also on the ballot were his wife, a son and a daughter-in-law -- candidates for seats on a town committee.

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