WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain stumbled in the first elections since becoming the apparent Republican nominee for president, losing the Kansas caucuses as another round of states voted Saturday.
Despite losing to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in Kansas and Louisiana, McCain is all but assured his party nod. The Arizona senator has rolled up huge numbers of delegates to the national convention: Before Saturday, he had 719 delegates to Huckabee's 234. Mitt Romney, who suspended his campaign last week, had 298.
Two of the three states voting Saturday, Kansas and Washington, were potentially difficult for McCain because he has warred with a major employer in both, Boeing Co. Kansas and Washington held GOP caucuses, while Louisiana held a primary election.
The vote in Washington remained tight late Saturday night, with The Associated Press calling the caucus for McCain. NBC News has said McCain is the apparent winner in Louisiana.
McCain helped kill a controversial $6 billion deal for Boeing to build refueling tankers for the Air Force. The deal led to corruption-related convictions for company executives and the resignation of its CEO, but nonetheless, jobs in the two states were at stake.
McCain said Boeing "has cleaned up its act" and said he supports the new process in which Boeing is competing to build the planes.
"We've now got a very fair competition between Airbus and Boeing for the Air Force tanker," McCain told reporters aboard his campaign plane between Wichita, Kan., and Seattle. "In fact, that decision will be made in just a few weeks, I understand."
As the nominee-in-waiting, McCain appeared somewhat more focused in recent days on trying to rally conservative critics behind him and unite his party than on barnstorming across the states voting Saturday and next Tuesday. Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia hold primaries Tuesday.
Quick trip to Baltimore
McCain did make a quick trip to Baltimore on Thursday and made stops in Norfolk, Va., Wichita and Seattle on Friday. But his main focus was on his critics; he addressed the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington on Thursday, and planned to spend Saturday on the phone talking with supporters as well as those who have not yet backed him.
McCain said he would be "talking with various people, thanking people who supported us, urging them to continue."
"It's a process of trying to unite the party," he told reporters Friday before landing in Seattle.
McCain's campaign announced the endorsement of yet another prominent Republican, former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton, who praised McCain's courage "to fight the liberals in the Senate" in the controversy over Bolton's nomination to his former post.
While GOP leaders continue to sign on with McCain, he endured a mostly symbolic defeat when former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney beat him in a straw poll at the conservative conference.
McCain cleared his path to the party nomination earlier in the week with a string of Super Tuesday victories that drove Romney from the race. He spent the rest of the week trying to reassure skeptical conservatives, at the same time party leaders quickly closed ranks behind him.
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