From coast to coast, millions of Americans turned out yesterday to vote in a Super Tuesday clash that Hillary Clinton was hoping would see her confirmed as the front-runner in the bitter battle for the Democrat presidential nomination.
Mrs Clinton has long been seen as the party's inevitable candidate but late polls suggested that her double-digit national lead was slipping – a further twist in a contest that has so far confounded expectations at almost every turn.
Both Mrs Clinton and her rival, Barack Obama, were hoping that the outcome of Super Tuesday would provide enough momentum to see them win their party's eventual nomination. Whatever the outcome, the two campaigns are already preparing to fight the next round of primaries in Louisiana, Nebraska and Kansas in three days' time, followed by votes in 14 more states including delegate-rich Texas and Pennsylvania in March and April.
Hispanic voters, many of whom are voting for the first time, have emerged as a key demographic along with poor, single white women. The latter are solid backers of Mrs Clinton, while the Hispanic vote is split between both candidates.
The White House race is increasingly focused on the character and management style of both parties' candidates, rather than any ideology or hot-button issues such as Iraq. All the polls show that Democrats and many independent voters want the next President to pursue universal healthcare, put the economy on a steady footing and move on from George Bush's "war on terror".
Anti-immigrant right-wing zealots are furious at the prospect of the country's Spanish-speaking voters, many newly naturalised citizens, having a prominent say in who should get the keys to the White House. From CNN's Lou Dobbs to Rush Limbaugh on talk radio, a steady stream of bile is being directed at Hispanic immigrants, who are being seen as a threat to national security.
Hispanic voters had the final say in the Republican primary in Florida, giving John McCain a narrow win over Mitt Romney, who has a harsh deportation policy in store for America's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.
Going into the election, Mrs Clinton was in a dead heat with Mr Obama, with both holding 41 per cent of the vote nationwide, according to a weekend poll by CBS. But in Arizona, Mr Obama was leading among Hispanics by 53 per cent to 37 per cent, according to a McClatchy/MSNBC poll.
Meanwhile in California, where Latinos comprise 25 per cent of registered Democratic voters, Mrs Clinton had a commanding lead over Mr Obama of 52 per cent to 19 per cent, according to a Field Poll.
Operating under the radar of the majority of Americans, Hispanic groups have come together in record numbers to vote and agitate against the more draconian policies of the Republican candidates.
Both the Obama and Clinton camps have paid close attention to their demands, with younger Hispanics showing support for Mr Obama and older voters supporting the Clinton ticket.
Nearly 60 per cent of the Latino population was expected to participate in yesterday's primaries and caucuses, thanks in part to right-wing radio shows that have stirred up anti-immigrant sentiment in New Mexico and Arizona, where Hispanics make up 33 and 17 per cent of the electorate respectively.
The shows prompted a voter-registration drive by community groups, Spanish language newspapers and Univision, a national television network, which hoped to mobilise an estimated 18 million people.
Almost 60 per cent of Hispanic voters support the Democrats but a healthy 23 per cent vote Republican, with most favouring Mr McCain's immigration reforms, which would amount to an amnesty for many.
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