By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 6, 2008 2:44 PM
Republican Sen. John McCain moved closer to facing either of two Democratic senators, Hillary Rodham Clinton or Barack Obama, in November's presidential election after yesterday's Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses, but none of the candidates scored a decisive blow, and the campaigns' focus shifted today to a series of upcoming contests.
With both the Republican and Democratic presidential nominations still undecided, candidates today began looking to races this weekend and next week, including the "Potomac primaries" Tuesday in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C. For the first time in recent memory, those contests will carry some weight in determining the outcome of the nominating process.
The Clinton campaign, for one, wasted no time switching gears, sending out volunteers to woo commuters this morning at Metro stops in the Maryland suburbs.
"We're in a fierce competition, and we've got many more rounds to fight," Obama told a news conference today.
McCain, a four-term senator from Arizona, told reporters he hopes to unite Republicans behind his candidacy and "wrap this thing up as quickly as possible."
McCain emerged from Super Tuesday with a commanding lead in delegates, according to the latest counts today. He picked up 511 delegates with his victories in nine states -- including delegate-rich New York, Illinois and California -- giving him a total of 613, according to the Associated Press. That haul represents more than half the delegates needed to win the GOP nomination at the party's convention in Minneapolis in September.
But McCain's leading rival, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, won seven states, and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee emerged as a key player by capturing five. Romney came away from Super Tuesday with a total of 269 delegates, and Huckabee had 190, the AP reported. Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) trailed with 14.
Clinton, a second-term Democratic senator from New York, won primaries or caucuses in eight states and the U.S. territory of American Samoa, capturing 584 delegates and bringing her total to 845, the AP said. Obama, who is in his first term as a senator from Illinois, took more states -- 13 -- but came away with fewer delegates, the news agency said, winding up with a total of 765. However, the Obama camp and NBC News produced different tallies that put the Illinois senator narrowly ahead of Clinton in total delegates. The Obama campaign projected him with a lead of 13 delegates, while NBC News estimated this afternoon that he leads Clinton by four delegates, 838 to 834.
Delegate counts have tended to be a moving target because they include both pledged and unpledged delegates and because a number of states have complex systems for allocating them.
One race -- the Democratic caucuses in New Mexico -- remained too close to call this morning, with Obama narrowly leading Clinton but not all precincts having yet reported.
The races drew record turnout in many of the 24 states that had contests yesterday, as voters streamed to the polls despite rough weather that ranged from torrential rains and deadly tornadoes in the South to heavy snow in Colorado. Dozens of people were reported killed in twisters that ravaged two primary states -- Arkansas and Tennessee -- as well as Kentucky and Mississippi, which did not have contests yesterday. The storms spawned more tornadoes today in Southern states.
Ahead of the Potomac primaries, five states have nominating contests this weekend. Democrats will vote in a primary in Louisiana and caucuses in Nebraska and Washington state on Saturday, plus caucuses in Maine on Sunday. Republicans are voting in caucuses Saturday in Kansas, Louisiana and Washington.
At stake in the Feb. 12 contests in Maryland, Virginia and the District are 168 pledged delegates. Clinton plans to campaign tomorrow in Virginia, where Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) has endorsed Obama. Maryland's Democratic governor, Martin O'Malley, and Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) have endorsed Clinton.
Following the Potomac primaries are votes in Hawaii and Wisconsin on Feb. 19. Then come potentially key primaries on March 4 in Ohio, Rhode Island, Texas and Vermont.
Obama told a news conference today in Chicago that he remains the underdog in the race because of voters' greater familiarity with Clinton.
"But we're turning into a scrappy little team," he said. "I think we are less of an underdog than we were two weeks ago." Then, he said, "We were a big underdog; now we're a slight underdog."
Obama said it is "way too early" to think that the nomination battle might drag on until the Democratic convention in Denver in late August.
"We feel confident, though, that the wind is at our backs, and we're just going to keep working hard," he said.
Obama rejected the idea that he would be more vulnerable than Clinton to Republican attacks if he became the nominee. And he warned that unpledged "superdelegates" should think twice before voting for Clinton at the Democratic convention if they are in a position to tip the nomination toward her.
"The Clinton research operation is about as good as anybody's out there," he said. "I assure you that, having engaged in a contest against them for the last year, that, you know, they've pulled out all the stops." He added, "The notion that, somehow, Senator Clinton is going to be immune from attack or that there's not a whole dump truck that they can back up in a match-up between her and John McCain I think is just not true."
If the nomination comes down to the superdelegates, Obama said, "I think we're going to be able to say that we have more pledged delegates, meaning that the Democratic voters have spoken. And I think . . . that those super delegates -- who are elected officials, party insiders -- would have to think long and hard about how they approach the nomination, when the people they claim to represent have said, 'Obama's our guy.' "
According to the Democratic Party, 796 unpledged superdelegates will vote at the convention, in addition to 3,253 pledged delegates. At least 2,025 delegate votes are needed to secure the nomination.
McCain told a news conference he was "very pleased at both the depth and breadth of our victory last night." He vowed, "We will unite the party behind our conservative principles and move forward and win the general election in November." He said he has canceled a planned trip to Europe this weekend to focus on the coming caucuses and primaries.
"So we'll be hitting the campaign trail tomorrow morning," he said. "And hopefully we can wrap this thing up, unite the party and be ready to take on the Democratic nominee in November." He said both Clinton and Obama are "moving further and further to the left," making for "a very spirited debate and one that we can carry from a philosophical standpoint."
Making the rounds of the television news and talk shows this morning, Huckabee, buoyed by his showing yesterday, said he would compete in the upcoming contests, and chided talk-radio hosts and pundits who "had tried to write me off." He said Texas and Kansas are "in play" for him, and he ventured, "I think we can win in Virginia."
In any case, he vowed he would keep running until someone wins the 1,191 delegates needed to capture the GOP nomination.
Huckabee also criticized Romney for "whining" about events that gave Huckabee a victory at yesterday's West Virginia GOP convention. After none of the candidates won a majority in the first round of delegate voting there, McCain's backers threw their support to Huckabee to prevent Romney from winning the 18 delegates at stake.
"There's nothing dirty that happened in West Virginia," Huckabee told the Fox News Channel in response to a question. "The fact that they would rather have me than Mitt Romney, is that dirty? No, that's politics."
Huckabee said he "didn't cut a deal" with McCain, denying a charge from Romney. "Mitt Romney the day before had said, 'Let's quit whining,' " the former Arkansas governor said. "Yesterday, he's whining. So he can't even hold his same position on whether it's a good thing to whine or a bad thing to whine."
Huckabee, a socially conservative former Baptist minister, dismissed questions about whether he was staying in the race to position himself as McCain's running mate. He said on NBC's "Today" show, "Nobody ever wants the vice president's job. Nobody ever turns it down."
He said, "We're going to be opponents over the next several weeks, and we're not going to be talking about a marriage. We're going to be talking about both trying to go after the same bride."
"I'm not giving up," he said on CNN.
Huckabee said his victories yesterday -- he also took Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia and his home state of Arkansas -- were significant because a Republican presidential candidate needs to win the South in order to capture the White House.
Asked about conservative commentators who have said they would vote for Clinton before they would back McCain, whom they consider an apostate on some issues, Huckabee told CNN, "Well, you know what? They're not a conservative. If they say that, then that just proves something: They're more about themselves than they are the cause. Because there's no way that a true conservative would vote for Hillary Clinton."
He said he respects McCain and "would certainly vote for him before I would vote for Hillary or Obama."
Huckabee added, "Some people need to switch to decaf and realize, folks, we may not get all of our battles just like we want, but there's a larger context in which this has to be fought."