John McCain hoped to seal the deal. Mitt Romney wanted to stay alive. Either outcome was possible.
Super Tuesday’s coast-to-coast voting promised either to cap a turbulent yearlong campaign for the Republican presidential nomination by giving McCain enough convention delegates to make him unstoppable or to stretch the race out for weeks by putting Romney within reach of his chief rival’s total.
After one month of voting, the once crowded GOP field was considerably smaller. Four Republicans fought for more than 1,000 delegates at stake in primaries and caucuses in 21 states but McCain and Romney were best positioned to win the 1,191 delegates needed to secure the nomination. Going into Tuesday’s voting, McCain narrowly led Romney in the delegate race, 102 to 93.
In Tuesday’s voting, McCain led slightly among people who called themselves Republicans. He was backed in large measure by independents voting in GOP primaries as well as those who identified themselves as moderates. Romney had the advantage among conservatives, according to preliminary results of exit polling in Super Tuesday primary states for the Associated Press and television networks.
McCain, the Arizona senator and Vietnam prisoner of war, wanted to end the contest and seize the party prize that eluded him in his first presidential bid eight years ago. With his chief rival ceding the Northeast, McCain was all but assured victories in delegate-rich winner-take-all New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, plus Delaware and his home state of Arizona. Combined, those states offer 251 delegates.
He had a jolt of momentum behind him after his once-crippled candidacy rebounded last month to string together a series of wins in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida. But, with a reputation for bucking the party, McCain faced intense resistance from high-profile conservative radio hosts with large audiences among the GOP rank-and-file.
“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,” James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, said Tuesday in a statement to a conservative talk show host who read it on the air. He said he would not vote for McCain “as a matter of conscience,” and described McCain as someone with a “legendary temper” who “often uses foul and obscene language.” Dobson said he would sit out the general election if McCain was the GOP nominee.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and business executive, won in hard-fought Michigan, his native state, as well as scarcely contested Nevada, Wyoming and Maine. He was out to prove he could win a hotly contested state where he didn’t have generational links and hoped to grab enough delegates to keep him competitive with McCain heading into the next round of contests Feb. 9 in Louisiana and Kansas and Feb. 12 in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C.
Romney was counting on benefiting from conservative backlash against McCain, and looked to pick off delegates in big-prize California as well as win in Western caucus states to cobble together victories in enough states to continue his bid. He was assured a win in Utah, with its heavy Mormon population, and likely in Massachusetts.
The history-making possibilities were high. McCain, age 71, would be the country’s oldest first-term president when inaugurated, while Romney would be the nation’s first Mormon president.
Two other candidates had the potential to be spoilers.
Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and one-time Southern Baptist preacher, threatened to siphon conservative votes from Romney, particularly in Southern states, while Ron Paul, the libertarian-leaning Texas congressman, was positioned to a lesser degree to do the same from McCain, who draws his support from across the political spectrum.
In the first contest decided Tuesday, Huckabee won all 18 delegates at the West Virginia GOP convention and has a total of 61. Romney had hoped to claim victory there, but with McCain trailing, his backers switched their support to Huckabee to deprive Romney of the win.
Liz Sidoti covers the Republican presidential race for the Associated Press.