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McCain scores in Calif., N.Y., other big states

Image: John McCain
Sen. John McCain and wife Cindy greet supporters during a Super Tuesday rally at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix on Tuesday.Win Mcnamee / Getty Images
/ Source: NBC, and news services

Sen. John McCain won primary victories in California, New York and a string of other delegate-rich states on Super Tuesday, taking a commanding position in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

The victory in California was a crushing blow to Mitt Romney's hopes, and a Romney campaign official told NBC News that Wednesday would be a day of frank discussion about the campaign's future.

McCain also had victories in Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma,  and his home state of Arizona, along with an apparent win in tightly contested Missouri.

Romney won in Massachusetts, where he was governor, and in Utah, home of the Mormon church, of which he is a member, and where he once lived. He also picked up wins in the GOP caucuses in Alaska, Colorado, North Dakota, Minnesota and Montana.

But Romney's candidacy was complicated by the success of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won across the South — his home state as well as in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and West Virginia. Huckabee's victories were tempered by devastating tornadoes that killed at least 26 people in four Southern states, including Arkansas.

McCain watched returns back home in Phoenix on Tuesday night after campaigning in New York and California.

"We've won some of the biggest states in the country," McCain told cheering supporters at a rally in Phoenix before the California returns came in.

An underdog for months, he proclaimed himself the front-runner at last, and added, "I don't really mind it one bit."

Delegates are the keyFor the Republicans, the key wasn't the number of states won but the number of delegates taken, and in nine of the states contested by Republicans on Tuesday, it was winner take all.

That gave McCain, with the wins in New York (101 delegates), New Jersey (52), Arizona (53), Connecticut (27) and Delaware (18), an advantage. California — with 170 delegates the biggest prize for the Republicans — is not a winner-take-all state for the GOP, but McCain still stood to pick up a substantial portion of those delegates.

The Arizona senator had 516 total 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. 

Despite the news from his campaign, Romney was still full of fight as he spoke at an election-night rally in Boston, telling supporters before the California vote was apparent that the night's results were far from conclusive.

"One thing that’s clear is that this campaign’s going on," he told supporters.

Officials in Romney's campaign sought to put the best face on the night, telling NBC News that their candidate's showing was not the result of strong support for McCain but the result of Huckabee siphoning off votes. The challenge, these officials said on condition of anonymity, will be competing with Huckabee to harness conservative disaffection with McCain.

Still, the campaign reportedly was reconsidering a trip to Kansas ahead of the caucuses there on Saturday.

A two-man race?For his part, Huckabee also vowed to continue the race and called for conservatives to rally to his campaign.

"The conservatives do have a choice," he said, "because the conservatives have a voice."

And he noted his campaign's effect on Romney. "I've got to say that Mitt Romney was right about one thing — this is a two-man race. He was just wrong about who the other man in the race was. It's me, not him," Huckabee said.

Earlier, tempers heated up between the top GOP hopefuls, with McCain attacking Romney as having a “terrible record as governor” and Romney retorting that he must be in strong contention if he’s so able to get under the Arizona senator’s skin.

In West Virginia, Romney told supporters at the state Republican nominating convention that McCain’s support for global warming curbs “would effectively kill coal,” a lifeblood of the state, and just one of the McCain positions he branded as out of the conservative mainstream.

Romney had hoped to claim victory in West Virginia, but McCain backers, their candidate trailing, switched their support to Huckabee to deprive Romney of the win. Huckabee earned 18 delegates in the state.

NBC affiliate WSAZ-TV of Huntington, W.Va., reported that Huckabee also would give three of those delegates to the campaign of Texas Rep. Ron Paul in exchange for his support, though a Huckabee spokeswoman denied such a deal. Huckabee looked to Arkansas and other Bible Belt states to help his White House hopes, and his home state, Alabama and Georgia delivered after his win in West Virginia.

"I think to vote for yourself for president of the United States is pretty overwhelming," Huckabee said as he cast a ballot in North Little Rock.

The vote in Arkansas was complicated by deadly weather. Tornadoes , causing at least 11 deaths. The power was knocked out briefly at a Little Rock convention hall that hosted a watch party for Huckabee.

"While we hope tonight is a time for us to celebrate election results, we are reminded that nothing is as important as the lives of these fellow Arkansans, and our hearts go out to their families," Huckabee said.

McCain and Romney added last-minute California campaign stops after a weekend Field Poll showed 15 percent of Republicans were still undecided. The state was the largest delegate prize on the GOP side, although it is not a winner-take-all contest for Republicans.  

Notable edge for McCain Polling place interviews with voters suggested subtle shifts in the political landscape, potentially significant as the races push on through the campaign calendar.

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 winning about one-third of that group, and Huckabee about one in five.

McCain won in New Jersey and Connecticut, where nearly half the voters were moderates and liberals who strongly support him. He also won in Illinois, a state dominated by conservative GOP voters, in part because Huckabee and Romney split most of the conservative vote, while the three rivals shared support from evangelicals.

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 immigration and the war in Iraq.

On the economy, the message from GOP voters was mixed. Those voters citing the economy as their top concern favored McCain, as did those citing Iraq and terrorism. Romney's advantage came with the one quarter who said illegal immigration was their No. 1 concern. But on a separate question, Romney was cited as the candidate most trusted to manage the economy.

The survey was conducted in 16 states by Edison Media Research and  International for NBC News, The Associated Press and the other television networks.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour credited McCain for doing unexpectedly well in the Deep South.

“McCain has had a very good night,” Barbour, former chairman of the Republican National Convention, said on MSNBC. “He’s very competitive in the South. Interestingly, he’s competitive with Huckabee.”

Voting problems reportedThere were scattered reports of voting problems in various states.

Eight precincts in Chicago had minor problems and a ninth was expected to stay open for several extra hours after misplaced voting equipment caused a nearly two-hour delay in opening the polls.

Georgia voters faced waits as long as 90 minutes because a new requirement that they present photo identification meant poll workers had to compare IDs against computerized registration records.

In Virginia, the problem was voters showing up a week early — the state's primary won't occur until Feb. 12. Yet the State Board of Elections had received hundreds of calls by noon, many from people wanting to know why their polling places were closed.