By Michael D. Shear and Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 6, 2008
Sen. John McCain surged closer toward the Republican nomination yesterday by capturing the biggest Super Tuesday states, including California, but failed to knock out his rivals, who deprived him of victories across GOP strongholds in the South and West.
As millions of Republicans went to the polls in 21 states, the senator from Arizona racked up hundreds of delegates on the strength of winner-take-all primaries in the Northeast and elsewhere. But his inability to win in more than half of the states voting yesterday complicated his hopes of rallying the party behind his candidacy.
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee scored a surprising sweep of his native South, while former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney picked up a number of states in the West but fell short in critical battlegrounds that would have established him as McCain's primary challenger. Huckabee and Romney vowed last night to stay in the race as it moves to Virginia, Maryland and the District on Tuesday.
The multiple-front clash represented a virtual national primary as Republicans voted to choose a standard-bearer, with more states voting at once than in any other GOP nomination battle. McCain appeared poised to emerge with roughly half of the 1,191 delegates he needs to clinch the nomination, a huge one-day take after an epic, year-long fight to define the Republican Party in a post-George W. Bush era.
McCain easily captured New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, after being endorsed by former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, a defeated rival. McCain also won Missouri, Arizona, Illinois, Oklahoma and Delaware. His victory in California appeared to be by a large margin, though Romney will probably collect a sizable share of the state's delegates because they are apportioned by congressional district.
Speaking to supporters in Phoenix even before California's results were announced, McCain said, "We won some of the biggest states in the country," and added, "Tonight, I think we must get used to the idea that we are the Republican Party front-runner for the nomination of president of the United States." He paused before adding, "And I don't really mind it one bit."
McCain, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam who has carved out a career as a blunt-talking maverick on Capitol Hill, moved closer to the presidential prize he has been seeking for more than a decade by earning support across the country. But the voting made clear that serious challenges remain for McCain: to clear the field of rivals who question his commitment to conservative ideology, and to consolidate a fractured party.
Romney and Huckabee together kept at least 11 states out of McCain's column, and each claimed to be the alternative to the front-runner, who struggled throughout the day to appeal to conservatives. "Over the past few days, a lot of people have been saying this is a two-man race," Huckabee told supporters last night in Little Rock. "And you know what? It is. And we're in it."
Beside his home state of Arkansas, Huckabee prevailed in Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia. He also emerged victorious at a West Virginia convention with the help of McCain supporters, who on a second ballot threw their support to the former Arkansas governor to block a victory by Romney.
After surging into the top tier of candidates by winning the Iowa caucuses last month, Huckabee had struggled to win elsewhere. But his campaign was energized yesterday by the same evangelical voters who supported him in the Hawkeye State. Still, his path to the nomination appeared difficult once the campaign leaves the Deep South.
"Huck obviously has had a big night," said Steve Schmidt, a top adviser to McCain, who has largely viewed Romney as his chief competition for the past month. "Mitt had a very bad night. You can't say you're 'Mr. Conservative' and not win the South."
Romney won his home state of Massachusetts, as well as Utah -- home to his Mormon Church -- Minnesota, Montana, Colorado and North Dakota. But despite late polls that had suggested a close race in California and a last-minute campaign trip there, Romney did not win in the most populous state.
Speaking before the results in California had come in, Romney told supporters in Boston that "the one thing that is clear is that this campaign is going on." He said that "there are some people who thought it was all going to be done tonight," but he pledged to "go all the way to the convention, and we're going to win this thing."
With a little more than half of the delegates allocated after midnight, McCain had collected 420 delegates, compared with 130 for Romney, 99 for Huckabee and 5 for Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), according to an Associated Press count. Once delegates from California and other states that had not completely reported are included, Republican strategists expected McCain will easily top 500. He entered yesterday's contests with 102 delegates from previous victories.
But even if he can ultimately dispatch Romney and Huckabee in the coming weeks, McCain still has a difficult task persuading core Republican voters to stand with him. Many conservative leaders and talk-show hosts remain angered by McCain's 2000 denunciation of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, his votes against Bush's tax cuts and his attempts to liberalize immigration laws.
Among self-described conservatives voting yesterday, exit polling showed that McCain lost to Romney or Huckabee in many states, a sign that the anger and mistrust vented on talk shows in recent days is shared by many of the party faithful. In California, Romney held a double-digit lead over McCain among conservative voters. Romney even won conservative voters in McCain's home state of Arizona.
"He's got to come out of this feeling good, but I'm sure he can't feel that the cat's in the bag," former House majority leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) said of McCain.
"Like everything else in his life, John McCain continues to do things the hard way," said former Republican National Committee chairman Rich Bond, a McCain supporter. The victory in California, Bond added, makes it hard for Romney to catch McCain now. Without it, "he's got Mission Impossible in front of him."
Romney did better among late-deciding voters than he did among those who had made up their minds before the past few days, a sign that his relentless attacks leading to Super Tuesday may have succeeded in painting McCain as a liberal on immigration, campaign finance, taxes and energy policy. Exit polls showed that Romney swamped McCain among voters who consider illegal immigration the most important issue.
Romney spokesman Kevin Madden said that the campaign has had "robust fundraising" in the past week, and that that after yesterday's blitz of primary and caucus votes, the calendar favors his candidate. Campaign officials planned to meet tomorrow to map a strategy for the primaries in Virginia, Maryland and the District.
But the voting did not appear to indicate much support for the principal argument advanced by Romney's campaign in recent weeks -- that a former venture capitalist is better equipped to steer the country away from a possible recession. McCain came out on top among voters most worried about the economy, as well as with those who said Iraq and terrorism are their top concerns.
McCain and Romney have clashed for weeks over foreign policy and the economy as other rivals dropped out and the race narrowed. McCain has argued that his decades of experience in foreign policy qualify him as a wartime president. Romney seized on the nation's worsening economy as proof that his experience in the business world is what the country needs.
A multimillionaire, Romney has spent more than $35 million of his fortune in pursuing the presidency. But his long-planned strategy to win early-voting states fizzled, with Huckabee winning the Iowa caucuses and McCain the New Hampshire primary. Romney refused to concede the nomination to McCain as the acrimonious campaign continued into South Carolina and Florida.
Even before voting began, Romney's campaign vowed to continue on, saying the candidate will attend an annual conference of GOP conservatives this week in Washington -- a venue that aides said he will use to highlight McCain's struggles with the party base.
Huckabee vaulted from obscurity to the top tier with his surprise victory in Iowa a month ago but had struggled to replicate that success. He showed yesterday that he continues to attract a lot of support from evangelicals.
But Huckabee's continued presence also served to split the anti-McCain vote, frustrating Romney, who has tried to turn the campaign into a one-on-one confrontation with the longtime senator from Arizona. GOP strategists think much of Huckabee's support would have gone to Romney had Huckabee not remained in contention.
"Huckabee is preventing Romney from winning enough delegates to be competitive," said Sara M. Taylor, a former Bush White House political director who is neutral in the race. "He's only cemented McCain's front-runner status."
Hoping for some early momentum on Super Tuesday, Romney flew through the night Monday to arrive in Charleston, W.Va., to appear at the state's GOP convention. "I am the only candidate who can stop John McCain," Romney said at a breakfast meeting with West Virginia Republicans.
Romney went on to win 41 percent of votes at the convention, followed by Huckabee with 33 percent and McCain with 15 percent, but fell short of the majority required for victory. On the second ballot, McCain's supporters threw their support to Huckabee, giving him the victory and denying Romney the 18 delegates at stake.
Romney campaign manager Beth Myers denounced the outcome: "Unfortunately, this is what Senator McCain's inside-Washington ways look like: He cut a backroom deal with the tax-and-spend candidate he thought could best stop Governor Romney's campaign of conservative change."
McCain and Huckabee dismissed the complaint as sour grapes. "Well, yesterday, he was chiding me. He said not to whine," Huckabee said. "Today, he's changed his position on whining, and today he's for whining. So once again, Mitt has been able to take both sides of all issues, including whining."
That tone was reflected in the last 24 hours, in which McCain and Romney launched harsh television and Internet ads accusing each other of being closet liberals. The two also quarreled over comments by Romney that McCain said disparaged former senator Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.).