WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain seized command of the race for the Republican presidential nomination early Wednesday, winning delegate-rich primaries from the East Coast to California. Democratic rivals Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama traded victories in an epic struggle with no end in sight.
NBC News has projected a Clinton victory in Super Tuesday’s biggest state, California, in the Democratic campaign, capitalizing on backing from Hispanic voters. Obama fashioned victories in Alabama and Georgia on the strength of black support.
McCain’s own victory in the Republican race in the Golden State dealt a crushing blow to his closest pursuer, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
“We’ve won some of the biggest states in the country,” McCain told cheering supporters at a rally in Phoenix, hours before California made his Tuesday super. An underdog for months, he proclaimed himself the front-runner at last, and added: “I don’t really mind it one bit.”
In the competition that counted the most, the Arizona senator had 516 delegates, nearly half of the 1,191 needed for the nomination — and far ahead of his rivals.
Even so, Romney and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said they were staying in the race.
For Dems, no overall victory
Neither Clinton nor Obama proclaimed overall victory on a Super Tuesday that sprawled across 22 states, and with good reason. Obama won 13 states and Clinton eight plus American Samoa. But with victories in New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, the former first lady led narrowly in the early tabulation of delegates for the night.
Missouri was so close that although Obama won the vote count it was likely to be hours before it became clear whether he or his rival had captured a majority of the state’s 72 delegates.
The Democratic caucuses in New Mexico remained unsettled. Clinton had a 117-vote lead when the party shut down its vote counting operation until 11 a.m. EST.
“I look forward to continuing our campaign and our debate about how to leave this country better off for the next generation,” said the former first lady, looking ahead to the primaries and caucuses yet to come.
Obama was in Chicago, where he told a noisy election night rally, “Our time has come. Our movement is real. And change is coming to America.”
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Polling place interviews with voters suggested subtle shifts in the political landscape.
For the first time this year, McCain ran first in a few states among self-identified Republicans. As usual, he was running strongly among independents. Romney was getting the votes of about four in 10 people who described themselves as conservative. McCain was wining about one-third of that group, and Huckabee about one in five.
Overall, Clinton was winning only a slight edge among women and white voters, groups that she had won handily in earlier contests, according to preliminary results from interviews with voters in 16 states leaving polling places.
Obama was collecting the overwhelming majority of votes cast by blacks — a factor in victories in Alabama and Georgia.
Clinton’s continued strong appeal among Hispanics — she was winning nearly six in 10 of their votes — was a big factor in her California triumph, and in her victory in Arizona, too.
McCain, the early Republican front-runner whose campaign nearly unraveled six months ago, won in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware and his home state of Arizona — each of them winner-take-all primaries. He also pocketed victories in Oklahoma and Illinois. NBC News has also reported an apparent McCain victory in Missouri.
Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, won a series of Bible Belt victories, in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee as well as his own home state. He also triumphed at the Republican West Virginia convention, and told The Associated Press in an interview he would campaign on. “The one way you can’t win a race is to quit it, and until somebody beats me, I’m going to answer the bell for every round of this fight,” he said.
Romney won a home state victory in Massachusetts. He also took Utah, where fellow Mormons supported his candidacy. His superior organization produced caucus victories in North Dakota, Montana, Minnesota, Alaska and Colorado, and he, too, breathed defiance. “We’re going to go all the way to the convention. We’re going to win this thing,” he told supporters in Boston.
Democrats played out a historic struggle between two senators: Clinton, seeking to become the first female president, and Obama, hoping to become the first black to win the White House.
Clinton won at home in New York as well as in California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Arizona and Arkansas, where she was first lady for more than a decade. She also won the caucuses in American Samoa.
Obama won Connecticut, Georgia, Alabama, Delaware, Utah and his home state of Illinois. He prevailed in caucuses in North Dakota, Minnesota, Kansas, Idaho, Alaska and Colorado.
After an early series of low-delegate, single-state contests, Super Tuesday was anything but small — its primaries and caucuses were spread across nearly half the country in the most wide-open presidential campaign in memory.
The result was a double-barreled set of races, Obama and Clinton fighting for delegates as well as bragging rights in individual states, the Republicans doing the same.
The allocation of delegates lagged the vote count by hours. That was particularly true for the Democrats, who divided theirs roughly in proportion to the popular vote.
Nine of the Republican contests were winner take all, and that was where McCain piled up his lead.
The Arizona senator had 516 delegates, to 207 for Romney and 142 for Huckabee. It takes 1,191 to clinch the presidential nomination at next summer’s convention in St. Paul, Minn.
Overall, Clinton had 582 delegates to 485 for Obama, out of the 2,025 needed to secure victory at the party convention in Denver. Clinton’s advantage is partly due to her lead among so-called superdelegates, members of Congress and other party leaders who are not selected in primaries and caucuses — and who are also free to change their minds.
Alabama and Georgia gave Obama three straight Southern triumphs. Like last month’s win in South Carolina, they were powered by black votes.
Democrats and Republicans alike said the economy was their most important issue. Democrats said the war in Iraq ranked second and health care third. Republican primary voters said immigration was second most important after the economy, followed by the war in Iraq.
The survey was conducted in 16 states by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International for The Associated Press and television networks.
Already, the campaigns were looking ahead to Feb. 9 contests in Louisiana, Nebraska and Washington state and Feb. 12 primaries in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. And increasingly, it looked like the Democrats’ historic race between a woman and a black man would go into early spring, possibly longer.
The de facto national primary was the culmination of a relentless campaign that moved into overdrive during Christmas week.
After a brief rest for the holiday, the candidates flew back to Iowa on Dec. 26 for a final stretch of campaigning before the state’s caucuses offered the first test of the election year. New Hampshire’s traditional first-in-the-nation primary followed a few days later, then a seemingly endless series of campaign days interspersed by debates and a handful of primaries and caucuses.
Along the way, the poorest performers dropped out: Democratic Sens. Joe Biden and Chris Dodd, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio; and Republican Reps. Duncan Hunter and Tom Tancredo, and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson.
Former Sen. John Edwards pulled out of the Democratic race last week, and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani left the Republican field.
Edwards offered no endorsement as he exited, instead leaving Obama and Clinton to vie for help from his fundraisers and supporters.
Giuliani quit the race and backed McCain in the same breath, clearing the way for the Westerner in New York and New Jersey.
Giuliani’s departure also made it possible for California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to back McCain. Schwarzenegger said he would not have done so as long as the former mayor was in the race.
Obama and Clinton spent an estimated $20 million combined to advertise on television in the Feb 5 states.
Obama spent $11 million, running ads in 18 of the 22 states with Democratic contests. Clinton ran ads in 17, for a total of $9 million.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.