John McCain emerged from Super Tuesday the clear frontrunner in the Republican presidential race, capturing key states from New York to California but failing to seal the nomination in the face of strong conservative resistance that bestowed unexpected favour on the evangelical former governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton did just well enough to retain an edge over Barack Obama – she won the highly competitive states of Massachusetts and New Jersey, and took the grand prize of California – but faces a huge challenge in the contests to come because she no longer has the momentum and is falling far behind in the fund-raising race.
Senator Obama was projected to win as many as 14 of the 22 Democratic Super Tuesday races, including Georgia, Connecticut and his home state of Illinois, and a narrow win in the bellwether state of Missouri.
Senator Clinton took the most populous of the 22-states and maintains a lead in the all-important tally of delegates but Senator Obama is close behind with fresh momentum as the Democratic race moves into territory where he would seem to have an edge.
The one unambiguous loser of the night was Mitt Romney, the Republican former governor of Massachusetts who not only fell short in must-win states like California and Missouri, but also lost significant ground to Mr Huckabee, who swept the conservative vote – and the election – in Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas and West Virginia.
Senator McCain had hoped the 24 Republican primaries and caucuses – an unprecedented cascade of races on a single day – would act as a steamroller flattening all opposition and making him the de facto nominee seven months before the party convention.
It didn't work out that way, because of a groundswell of opposition from the conservative wing of the party who have accused Senator McCain, a ruggedly independent-minded politician who is not shy of cutting deals with Democrats in the Senate, of betraying their values and failing to be a loyal team player.
Still, it is well-nigh impossible to imagine either Mr Romney or Mr Huckabee catching up with him as the state-by-state contests continue. If both challengers stay in the race, they are surely doomed to split the conservative vote between them and make their cause even more futile. Both vowed last night to keep fighting.
Senator McCain, for his part, fully embraced the "frontrunner" label for the first time as he addressed his supporters in a hotel ballroom in Phoenix, Arizona. He had never minded being labeled an underdog, he said. "But tonight," he went on to growing cheers, "I think we must get used to the idea that we are the Republican frontrunner for the nomination." Chants from the back of the room echoed the slogan: "Mac is back! Mac is back!"
The Arizona Senator won one big prize after another – New York and the rest of the northeastern states apart from Massachusetts, Illinois, Missouri, Arizona, and California. He was gracious about recognising his Republican opponents, but also put in a plug for his own conservative bona fides. If he snags the nomination, he said, "our conservative philosophy and principles… will win the votes of a majority of the American people and defeat any candidate our friends on the other side nominate".
His campaign aide Steve Schmidt was rather less gracious about Mr Romney, describing his Super Tuesday performance as a "debacle". "If Mitt Romney were a ship, he'd be the Titanic," he said. Mr Romney won his home state of Massachusetts, Minnesota and the Mormon stronghold of Utah, but little else of significance.
Mr Huckabee, for his part, clearly believed his performance gave him, not Mr Romney, the mandate to keep campaigning. "Over the past few days, a lot of people have been trying to say this is a two-man race," Mr Huckabee told supporters at his Arksansas headquarters. "Well, you know what, it is -- and we're in it!"
The picture on the Democratic Party side was much harder to read. Senator Clinton emerged from Super Tuesday with more delegates, but is unlikely to win the battle of perceptions as the primary season continues. She has done nothing but lose ground in the past few weeks, while Senator Obama has roared from behind in state after state to become either hotly competitive or surpass her altogether.
Many television pundits called the contest a dead heat, but the momentum remains with the Illinois Senator. He is expected to do well in contests later this week in Nebraska, Louisiana and Washington state and is likely to thrive in the close-to-the-ground "retail politics" environment that a less crowded primary calendar will allow.
Senator Clinton's problem in the money stakes is that many of her contributors have already given the maximum and cannot legally open their wallets to her again. Senator Obama, by contrast, has raised his cash largely from low-dollar contributors, only 3 per cent of whom have hit their maximum to date. In January alone, he raised $32 million, compared with about $13 million for Senator Clinton.
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