John McCain was the early projected winner in several Super Tuesday primary states including New York, New Jersey, and Illinois, but found himself in an unexpectedly tight three-way race in Georgia, where the evangelical former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee was proving as competitive as his main rival Mitt Romney.
Early returns and projections based on exit polling suggested the night might not be quite the steamroller the McCain campaign had hoped for. But with several key states still in doubt – none more important than California, which holds the single biggest cache of delegates to the summer nominating convention – it was too soon to know for sure.
Republicans voted in caucuses and primaries in 24 states, forcing all the leading candidates to make tough choices about where to allocate their resources. Senator McCain was quick to seize the mantle of presumptive nominee in the wake of his primary victory in Florida last week, but some of his momentum appears to have slipped away following an indifferent debate performance in California and a barrage of criticism from conservative commentators and congressmen who don't consider him a good Republican team player.
Mr Huckabee won the West Virginia caucus – to the chagrin of Mr Romney – and was the predicted winner in his home state of Arkansas. Mr Romney, meanwhile, appeared to be walking away with his own home state of Massachusetts, raising questions about the wisdom of Senator McCain's decision to campaign there earlier in the week.
Meanwhile in Georgia, the first state to close its polling stations, Mr Huckabee was clinging on to a narrow lead with just under half the votes counted. The former Arkansas governor had 35 per cent, to Senator McCain's 32, with Mr Romney right behind on 29.
Similarly close races were developing in Missouri and Oklahoma – with Mr Huckabee, in both cases, nipping at Senator McCain's heels.
Early exit polls confirmed that the sputtering US economy was by far the most important issue for Republicans. It was ranked first by 38 per cent of voters compared to 24 per cent for immigration and 20 per cent for the war in Iraq. Mr McCain, a Vietnam War hero, focused heavily on foreign policy in recent days and may be weaker on the economy.
Suspense lingered in California where eve-of-voting polls showed Mr Romney threatening to snatch victory from Mr McCain. "This could be a long night. California is tightening up," Mr McCain said.
Even as polling began yesterday, McCain and Romney were engaged in an intense tit-for-tat, both releasing 11th-hour television spots highlighting their faith in the late Ronald Reagan and trying to claim the deepest conservative credentials.
A good night for Mr McCain could, in essence, crown him as his party's nominee and new flag-bearer. It would end weeks of confusion in the Republican derby and also mark a stunning turnaround for a candidate who, a few months ago, seemed destined to fall flat in his second bid for the presidency.
A decent performance by Mr Romney, however, could mean not only that that the former Massachusetts governor remains in the race but that new doubts will surface about whether the independent-minded Mr McCain can realistically unite the party around him.
Before trekking to West Virginia, Mr Romney dipped one last time into California late on Monday evening in Long Beach. "We wanted to come back and put an exclamation point on the kind of support I am getting here," he told reporters. Mr McCain made his final pitch to Super Tuesday voters in San Diego before heading home to Arizona.
While California was in flux, Mr McCain was still counting on big wins in the east, including New Jersey and New York which he appeared to have captured along with Connecticut and Delaware.
With his TV spots and stump appearances, Mr Romney has been striving to exploit doubts among conservatives about Mr McCain's commitment to their cause, particularly on immigration, taxation and campaign-funding reform, where some consider him too liberal.
It didn't hurt the former Massachusetts governor that Mr McCain has in recent days come in for stinging criticism from media commentators such as Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter and even from some of his more right-wing Senate colleagues. Indeed, on the airwaves – typically led by conservative voices – there seemed to be a new-found and 11th-hour wave of support for Mr Romney. Mr McCain tried to brush off the attacks. "I have never been elected Miss Congeniality because I've fought against these practices that have caused the American people to hold us in such low esteem," he told NBC News.
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