Party Rules Help McCain, Roil Race for Democrats

By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 6, 2008

In her home state of New York yesterday, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton swamped Sen. Barack Obama by more than 300,000 votes, securing more than 57 percent of the popular vote. But Clinton won only 139 of the delegates at stake, while the Illinois senator won 93 delegates of his own, according to preliminary state party estimates.

This same pattern played out in states all across the nation in yesterday's Super Tuesday primary for Democrats, who awarded their delegates based on a complex formula of apportioned votes. Despite Clinton's triumphs in the states with the largest batch of delegates, Obama still secured enough votes to get a sizable chunk of delegates. He also won large victories in some smaller states.

The complex rules meant that the Democratic race for the presidential nomination remained muddled yesterday, allowing the battle to persist until late spring and possibly until the August convention.

The confusion was epitomized by dueling conference calls the two camps held last night. According to the Obama campaign's preliminary analysis of early-voting states, the senator from Illinois held a 70-delegate edge. Although Clinton won some large states such as New York and New Jersey, the campaign aides said, Obama won by large margins in mid-size states such as Minnesota and Kansas.

However, Clinton aides projected that once all the delegates are calculated from Western states, the New York senator will be ahead.

If the battle persists through the summer, the only path to victory will be winning the majority of nearly 800 party officials known as superdelegates -- each of whom can back the candidate of his liking at the Democratic convention.

On the Republican side, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) attained a solid lead over his rivals yesterday, but experts said he must continue to accumulate victories this month and in March to secure the Republican presidential nomination. He emerged with a solid lead over former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee by winning a series of delegate-rich states such as New York, Missouri and New Jersey, where party rules gave him all of the delegates.

McCain needs 1,191 delegates to secure the nomination. Precise tallies were still being calculated last night, but early results made clear that McCain had collected more than 500 delegates in the past five weeks.

McCain's strong showing meant that he could have twice as many delegates as Romney and Huckabee, who scored victories only in smaller states.

His supporters began the day hoping for a knockout punch so that McCain -- who is viewed warily by GOP conservatives -- could begin trying to unify Republicans while Democrats dig in for a protracted fight. "It gives you a chance to go out and immediately consolidate people behind you," said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), an early McCain backer. "I think that's advantage us, if [Democrats] are fighting this out."

But the early tallies suggested that McCain's nomination is still not certain, and Huckabee's wins in Southern states could create a three-way fight.

On the Republican side, next week's "Potomac primary" in Maryland, the District and Virginia will be the most critical because all three votes are winner-take-all. If McCain -- who has prominent backers in Virginia and Maryland -- takes all three, he would gain another 119 delegates.

Romney and Huckabee can keep their hopes alive by splitting the vote with McCain in four other states this month that do not have winner-take-all rules and trying to catch a wave of momentum before four more contests on March 4. That's when another substantial portion of delegates is up for grabs, including a chunk in Texas, and a mostly winner-take-all chunk in Ohio.

Should the Republican and Democratic contests remain undecided after the Mississippi primaries on March 11, the candidates will have six weeks to campaign anew without a primary or caucus. The Democratic rules make it likely that the nomination battle will last at least until April 22, when Pennsylvania holds its primaries.

Every Democratic caucus and primary apportions delegates partly based on the percentage of votes received by candidates, but there is a twist. About two-thirds of delegates are awarded depending on votes within congressional districts, and one-third are awarded as at-large delegates based on the entire statewide vote.

That means that Clinton, despite being crushed by a 2 to 1 voting margin by Obama in Georgia, still could take close to a third of the 87 delegates available there.

The magic number for the Democratic nomination is 2,025 delegates. Neither candidate appeared to be halfway toward that total after yesterday's balloting. "Nobody's predicting what's going to happen," Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a Clinton supporter, said of her state's caucuses on Saturday.

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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