McCain pledges to 'wrap up' nomination

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Fresh from his sweeping performance in the Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses, John McCain vowed to keep fighting to "wrap this thing up" and made strenuous efforts to court right-wingers in the Republican Party, who exposed his only weakness and prevented him from claiming the presidential nomination outright.

The Arizona senator won in almost all of the big states – New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Missouri and California – tripping up only in the south, where the former Arkansas governor and evangelical preacher Mike Huckabee stole both his and Mitt Romney's thunder by pulling off a string of five victories. In his victory speech after winning on Tuesday, Mr McCain at last embraced the term "front-runner" and looked forward to fighting the bigger battle against the Democratic nominee in November.

By yesterday, though, he had taken stock of his position and decided the nomination battle was not quite over yet. He told a news conference in his home state that he was cancelling a weekend trip to a Nato meeting in Germany, where he had hoped to meet Gordon Brown, among others – so he could focus on the next primaries and caucuses. Louisiana and Kansas voted this Saturday and Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia – collectively known as the "Potomac Primary" – will cast their ballots next Tuesday.

The initial idea behind attending the Nato meeting was to create an aura of inevitability about his candidacy and give voters a mental picture of him as President. The McCain campaign appears to have decided, though, that that would be premature.

Instead, Mr McCain's immediate focus will be on addressing the annual meeting of the Conservative Political Action Committee in Washington later today, giving him a chance to present his conservative bona fides and fight back against critics such as the talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh, and James Dobson, the evangelical lobbyist from Focus on the Family, who have been denouncing him as a traitor to the conservative cause.

Mr Romney will address the same meeting today, while Mr Huckabee will give his own speech on Saturday.

Mr Dobson, an influential figure who has the ear of President Bush, launched a blistering election-day attack in which he said: "I am convinced Senator McCain is not a conservative, and in fact has gone out of his way to stick his thumb in the eyes of those who are."

Yesterday, Mr McCain gave a vigorous defence of both his voting record – which looks very conservative to most non-Americans – and of his ability to attract the most conservative voters. In California, for example, he did well uniformly across the state.

He suggested his critics were getting ahead of themselves, saying: "I do hope that at some point we would just calm down a little bit and see if there are areas that we can agree on for the good of the party and for the good of the country."

It was clear from Tuesday's results that he has a problem in the south, specifically with religious voters and even more specifically with Southern Baptists, who flocked to Mr Huckabee. Mr McCain opposes abortion – their biggest issue – but he is not an evangelist.

Some commentators said the best way to get around the problem might be to consider Mr Huckabee as his running-mate. The two men clearly get along, and Mr McCain praised his rival for running "with distinction". But no running mate is likely to be selected until the summer.