When the big enchilada—California and the lion's share of its 170 delegates—moved into John McCain's win column just after midnight, it was clear that the fractious Republican Party was on its way to sending the Arizona senator in to battle the Democratic nominee for the White House.
"Tonight, I think we must get used to the idea that we are the Republican Party front-runner for the nomination," McCain said at his Phoenix headquarters. "And I don't really mind it one bit."
For a candidate who has been under stinging attack by the conservative wing of the party and whose campaign last summer appeared mortally crippled by staff and money problems, McCain showed wide, if not deep, strength. His determined march, and a surprisingly robust showing by evangelical conservative Mike Huckabee, who picked up wins in a swath of southern states, made for a tough night for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Romney, who won states in the west, wanted Super Tuesday to be a contest between him and McCain. But with Huckabee's re-emergence after his early win in the Iowa caucuses last month, the results could signal trouble for a campaign into which Romney has poured more than $35 million of his own money. But at his Boston headquarters, Romney pledged to soldier on. "This campaign is going on," he said. "We're going all the way to the convention."
It was Huckabee who emerged as McCain's closest rival and provided the most surprises—wresting the first contest in West Virginia from Romney (with help from McCain defectors), and then ticking off wins through the south, including Arkansas, Georgia, and Alabama. In a zinger aimed at Romney, Huckabee told supporters at his Little Rock headquarters that the GOP nomination battle has turned into a two-man race—"and we're in it." The former Arkansas governor pledged to stay in the race "as long as there are still votes and delegates to be won."
Romney won Massachusetts, where he lives, and, among a number of other western states, Utah, where he owns a home and is supported by the state's large Mormon population. He also proved popular with the voters who identified themselves as conservatives—in Arizona, won by McCain, 47 percent of conservatives voted for Romney, with McCain drawing just 36 percent. Exit polls elsewhere also showed McCain losing to Romney and Huckabee among conservatives. In Georgia, Huckabee won a majority of conservative votes, including those of party stalwarts still loyal to the Bush administration.
And that points to a problem McCain faces as he continues to court skeptical conservatives uncomfortable with his positions on immigration, tax cuts, global warning, and campaign finance reform. Through the night, he gobbled up support from moderate Republicans and independents, but he continued to struggle to dominate among party members who describe themselves as conservative. His strength came from Republicans who said they were either dissatisfied or angry about the Bush administration. In state after state, McCain capitalized on that antipathy: In New Jersey, for example, exit polls showed that 52 percent of Republicans who said they were dissatisfied with the Bush administration and 45 percent of those angry about the Bush reign marked their ballots for the Arizona senator.
In his speech at his headquarters, McCain reached out to conservatives, pledging to uphold the "conservative philosophy of our great party" and promising to defeat any candidate the Democrats offer up. "This election is a rough-and-tumble business," he said, after offering congratulations to Huckabee and Romney for their wins. "We still have a ways to go, but we're much closer to a victory we've worked so hard to achieve."
McCain went into Super Tuesday with strong leads in many of the contests, with the exception of California, where he and Romney had been battling it out for the state's delegate treasure-trove. But, as has been increasingly the case this election year, the final polls in some states proved sketchy. In Georgia, for example, two final polls had McCain up and Huckabee third.