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McCain still short of nomination

Last week the GOP presidential hopeful's campaign issued a statement  claiming the Arizona senator had surpassed the number of delegates needed to secure the nomination.
McCain 2008
Despite a release from his campaign last week, presidential hopeful, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., seen with his wife, Cindy, has not yet clinched the Republican presidential nomination.Pat Sullivan / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Not so fast, Sen. McCain. John McCain's campaign issued a statement last week claiming the Arizona senator had surpassed the number of delegates needed to secure the GOP nomination for president, after Mitt Romney endorsed him.

John McCain sure looks like he has the nomination all but wrapped up. But he isn't there yet, and here's why:

It will take 1,191 delegates to secure the Republican nomination at the national convention this summer.

McCain has 908 delegates, including those won in primaries and caucuses as well as endorsements from party leaders who automatically attend the convention. Romney has 253, according to The Associated Press tally.

Together, that's 1,161 delegates, which could make it tempting for some to put McCain over the top Tuesday evening if he fares well in primaries in Washington state and Wisconsin. A total of 56 delegates will be at stake.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has 245 delegates, placing him behind a candidate who isn't even in the race anymore. Texas Rep. Ron Paul has 14.

Limited delegate control
GOP rules, however, say McCain still has work to do.

The rules vary state to state. But in general, Romney has little authority over his delegates after he releases them. The vast majority haven't been named. Once they are, most will be free agents at the convention, free to support whomever they choose.

Huckabee has said he won't quit until somebody reaches 1,191 delegates. And a few more Huckabee victories in upcoming primaries could prove embarrassing for McCain.

McCain's campaign is aggressively lobbying Romney's former supporters. At GOP conventions during the weekend in Louisiana and Michigan, McCain picked up at least 55 delegates.

Afterward, a McCain aide declined to say whether last week's statement was a formal declaration of victory in the race for the nomination.

No guarantees
John Yob, McCain's deputy political director, said Romney's former delegates are "inching Senator McCain close to the magic number of delegates. It will take some time to verify every delegate but the results from Michigan and Louisiana were significant steps forward."

Most of Romney's former delegates will probably follow his lead and support McCain, especially if McCain is the only candidate left standing at the convention. But 100 percent support is not guaranteed, regardless of Romney's endorsement.

Consider Michigan.

Romney won 23 delegates in Michigan's Jan. 15 primary. The delegates were named at the GOP state convention, and Huckabee picked up three of Romney's former delegates. McCain got 18 and it was unclear whom the other two would support.

The delegate numbers for Michigan are approximate because the state was stripped of half its GOP delegates for violating party rules by holding an early primary, and local officials have refused to say which delegates would be eliminated, if the penalty is enforced.

In Wyoming, Romney won eight delegates in GOP caucuses Jan. 5. Since Romney dropped out, three switched to McCain, one backed Huckabee and four said they were undecided in interviews with the AP.

Most of Romney's other delegates won't be named until state party conventions this spring. They will be selected by Romney's supporters. But they will, in general, be free to support whomever they choose at the national convention.

Waiting for official notifcation
Many of these delegates were bound by party rules to vote for Romney at the convention, unless he releases them. For some states, Romney's public endorsement of McCain was sufficient to release the delegates.

But GOP officials in Montana, Utah and Alaska, where Romney won a total of 73 delegates, said they were waiting for official notification from the Romney campaign. None had arrived by late last week.

Until then, "The Alaska Republican delegate allocation will remain as allocated," state GOP Chairman Randy Ruedrich said in an e-mail.

In California, state election law says each delegate released by a Republican candidate after he withdraws "shall be free to vote as he or she chooses." Romney won at least six delegates in California's primary on Super Tuesday, a number that could grow as absentee ballots are counted.

McCain's campaign used projections when it claimed that Romney's delegates would have put him over the top last week. They included delegates from primaries where the vote tally is still incomplete, inflating the delegate count for both McCain and Romney.

Looking ahead, the earliest McCain could surpass 1,191 delegates would be March 4, when delegate-rich states such as Ohio and Texas vote. To do that, McCain would have to win decisively in just about every contest between now and then.

If McCain does well in Tuesday's primaries, Huckabee will need help from Romney's supporters to remain a viable candidate. It is unlikely he will ever get enough help to come close to McCain's delegate total.

But that's not a mathematical certainty. Not yet.