Next Phase of GOP Race: A Marathon or a Sprint?
McCain Seeks To Close It Out As Rivals Plan Next Moves

By Michael D. Shear and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 7, 2008

The race for the Republican presidential nomination shifted into a new phase yesterday, with a now dominant Sen. John McCain still facing at least a month-long trek through 11 states unless he or the party's leaders can ratchet up the pressure on his rivals to bow out of the increasingly lopsided contest.

McCain emerged from Super Tuesday with more than 700 delegates to the party's national convention. That was three times the total for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney or former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee -- and fewer than 500 short of what he needs to secure the GOP presidential nomination.

"Hopefully, we can wrap this thing up, unite the party and be able to take on the Democratic nominee in November," McCain told reporters gathered in an airport hangar yesterday as he prepared to leave Phoenix and head to Washington. "I think we've got to wrap this thing up as quickly as possible."

But Romney and Huckabee showed little interest in backing out of the contentious race after each captured a swath of the country in Tuesday's voting. Romney, who won low-delegate states in the West without any major breakthroughs, hunkered down in Boston with top aides as he prepared to speak to conservative activists in Washington. Huckabee, who showed surprising strength in the South, appeared on eight morning news-talk programs yesterday, vowing to go on.

Following the one-day 21-state GOP voting blitz that taxed the candidates' financial and strategic resources, the next primary is, in effect, the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, where the three will appear separately. Romney and McCain are to address the group this morning; Huckabee will speak on Saturday. All three will seek the blessing of an anxious and dissatisfied wing of their party that has been especially hostile to McCain.

After that, the GOP race becomes a weekly handful of small to mid-size primaries and caucuses, beginning Saturday in Kansas, Louisiana and Washington state, and continuing with "Potomac Primary" contests in Maryland, Virginia and the District on Tuesday.

McCain is seeking to establish the inevitability of his candidacy by continuing to win contests and accumulate delegates. At the same time, his advisers are pushing the idea that Romney and Huckabee have no chance.

McCain won nine of the 21 states that held GOP contests Tuesday, including California and New York, to seven for Romney and five for Huckabee, while gaining a huge lead in delegates. As of last night, McCain had 703 out of the 1,191 delegates needed to win the nomination. Romney had 310, Huckabee had 190 and Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) had 14.

In a public memo from his top strategist, McCain began to make the case that it is almost impossible for Romney to become the nominee. "Mitt will have to win by big margins in many states to garner every last delegate," adviser Charlie Black wrote. "The math is nearly impossible for Mitt Romney."

McCain advisers said the campaign is planning a series of what they called high-profile endorsements next week that would help build consensus among well-known Republicans.

The Rev. Jonathan Falwell, son of the late televangelist Jerry Falwell, said yesterday that he has been talking with McCain to make sure the senator remembers important conservative issues. "It looks as if Senator McCain is going to be the nominee," Falwell said.

While he has not backed a candidate, Falwell said, "At some point, we may make something a little more formal in terms of an endorsement." He praised McCain's record on conservative issues, saying: "He has been listening. We'd like for him to maybe voice these thoughts and voice these issues more on the campaign trail."

Also yesterday, other Republicans began calling for the way to be cleared for McCain.

"I think the decision's been made," Florida Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer said in an interview. "It looks to me that John McCain is the nominee of our party." As such, he added: "When it's clear that there's a front-runner and a person's going to be the nominee, to not focus on the real objective, which is to beat the Democrats, is a waste of time."

Not everyone was ready for the contest to end. "Here in Texas, we have not had a chance to have our say yet, and we certainly hope Texans will play a large role in that decision," said the state's party chairman, Tina J. Benkiser. "If the election were held today in the state, I don't know who would win."

After the Washington area contests on Tuesday, Republicans will hold a primary in Wisconsin on Feb. 19 before a big-delegate day on March 4, when Texas, Ohio, Vermont and Rhode Island will vote. Those four states will award a total of 265 delegates, the biggest single-day haul remaining on the calendar.

For Romney, the challenge is to continue raising doubts about McCain among conservatives, who have never trusted the senator's commitment to their causes, and in the hope that the McCain campaign could unexpectedly implode, as it did last summer.

Aides say that Romney will try to raise concerns at the CPAC conference this morning. But winning more states during the next month may be the best way to make Republicans question McCain's viability. Romney planned to campaign in Baltimore tonight ahead of Maryland's primary.

Huckabee has targeted evangelical voters and social conservatives in his bid. His success in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and Tennessee on Super Tuesday again demonstrated the power of his appeal and the distance McCain needs to go to win over that constituency.

But Gary L. Bauer, president of American Values and a leading voice for the religious right, said it is time for conservatives to make their peace with McCain. "We're entering a new stage where we need to start coming together," he said in an interview.

While aides were working on McCain's campaign schedule for the next few days, Black said they would focus on Virginia as well as Washington state and Kansas, both of which will hold caucuses on Saturday. It was unclear whether McCain will visit Kansas, where Republicans are split between moderates and conservatives and where Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) is working to line up support for him.

McCain will work aggressively to win over Washington area voters in the coming week. His campaign is airing television ads in the District, Maryland and Virginia, where it is counting on retiring Rep. Thomas M. Davis III to deploy his considerable political operation to boost the senator's chances in that state. In Maryland, Black said McCain will probably prevail because he has support among the state's more moderate Republicans.

"I expect Virginia to be a huge three-way battleground, so we'll concentrate our effort there for a couple of days," Black said.

Eilperin reported from Phoenix. Staff writers Peter Baker and Glenn Kessler and political researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report from Washington.

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