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McCain holds off strong Huckabee challenge

Image: John McCain speaks after a luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Sen. John McCain meets with fellow Republicans on Tuesday in Washington.Kevin Lamarque / Reuters
/ Source: and NBC News

Sen. of Arizona won the Republican presidential primaries Tuesday in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, according to NBC projections, tamping down an unexpectedly tough challenge from former Arkansas Gov. .

McCain, who already had an all-but-insurmountable lead in delegates to the Republican National Convention, rebounded strongly after a poor weekend showing that saw him lose caucuses in Kansas and a primary in Louisiana on Saturday to Huckabee, his last remaining major rival. He did win caucuses in Washington state.

Speaking in Alexandria, Va., a Washington suburb, McCain thanked voters for “a clean sweep of the Potomac primary,” but he acknowledged that Huckabee remained an irksome opponent.

Huckabee “certainly keeps things interesting, a little too interesting at times tonight, I must confess,” McCain said.

But he declared: “As luck, that product of opportunity and industry, would have it, we are approaching the end of the first half of the election on quite an upswing.”

Because of the Republicans’ winner-take-all rules, McCain will win nearly all of the 113 delegates at stake Tuesday. But the delegate breakdown will not reflect the strength of Huckabee’s campaign among conservatives, many of whom distrust McCain.

Conservatives make it close in VirginiaHuckabee told reporters in Little Rock, Ark., that his close showing in Virginia proved that “there’s still a real sense in the Republican Party of a desire to have a choice.”

“We feel like if we’d had a few more days, maybe we could have closed the gap all the way,” he said.

Huckabee said he was the only “solid conservative, absolutely pro-life candidate” still in the race, and exit interviews in Virginia suggested that his message resonated. Huckabee got strong support from self-described conservatives, who made up nearly 7 in 10 voters in the Republican primary. Huckabee won half their votes.

In a surprising showing of weakness for McCain, independents, a group he has dominated, were about evenly divided. People calling themselves loyal Republicans, who have previously given McCain a slight edge, were also split down the middle.

White born-again and evangelical Christians, the keystone of Huckabee’s support all year, were favoring him by more than a 2-to-1 ration. McCain led heavily among the 6 in 10 Virginia voters who were not white born-again and evangelicals.

Polls taken last week showed McCain with a double-digit lead over Huckabee, a Baptist minister, but Huckabee drew strong support in rural western Virginia, the state’s Bible belt. He appealed to Christian conservatives in Virginia, where he had the endorsement of Jerry Falwell Jr., the namesake son of the late television evangelist.

McCain, a Navy fighter pilot, pulled ahead on the strength of the vote in cities, in suburban Northern Virginia and in most of Hampton Roads, home to the largest U.S. Navy base.

After former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney withdrew from the race, McCain consolidated support among the state’s best-known Republican figures, including former Sen. George Allen, former Gov. Jim Gilmore, Attorney General Bob McDonnell and former Attorney General Jerry Kilgore. Retiring Sen. John Warner endorsed McCain last year.

Allen noted that Romney dropped out of the race less than a week ago and predicted that conservative Republicans would rally behind McCain as the party turns its focus to the Democratic nominee.

“The outreach will continue to all Republicans. We need to get all wings of our party flapping in the same direction,” he said.

Easier time in Maryland, D.C.It was not so close for McCain in the two other primaries Tuesday night. He was leading Huckabee by ratios of 2 to 1 in Maryland and 4 to 1 in the District.

Gail Lewis, of Annapolis, Md., said she voted for Huckabee because of his determination to stay in the race, even though he was way behind McCain.

“I like his values, his moral values,” said Lewis, 69. “I like his confidence.”

Other Republicans valued McCain’s experience and felt good about his big lead in the primary.

“I had to vote for McCain because he deserves it, really,” Hallie Guy, of Cambridge, Md., said in a coffee shop in Anne Arundel County, Md. “I just thought, with his experience and because he was a POW, he deserves it. ...

“I guess I would have voted for Huckabee, but he’s not doing too well,” Guy said.

Overall, NBC News’ count showed McCain with 801 delegates, while Romney had 282. Huckabee had 240, and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas had 14.

It takes 1,191 delegates to clinch the nomination, and McCain appears to be on track to reach the target by late April. But Huckabee vowed to fight on until he was mathematically eliminated.

“The nomination is not secured until someone has 1,191 delegates. That has not yet happened,” he said. “That’s really the possibility, that it could go to the convention.”