McCain pulls ahead; Clinton, Obama close

Published 5:06 pm Wednesday, February 6, 2008

John McCain earned himself a super Wednesday, a day to savor coast-to-coast primary victories that ratified him as the Republican front-runner, while Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama dug in after a night of divided spoils in a Democratic presidential contest that could stretch to the spring.

McCain, whose campaign once verged on collapse, piled up more delegates than his two rivals combined, pushing over the halfway mark on what’s needed to clinch the nomination. His victories stretched from New York to California, the biggest prize. Still, Mitt Romney in the West and Mike Huckabee in the South proved to be go-to candidates for conservatives, and they vowed to press forward.

Clarity of any sort eluded the Democrats as campaigns turned to the next rounds – contests in Louisiana, Nebraska and Washington state Saturday and a larger series of primaries in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia on Tuesday.

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More than 168 Democratic delegates are at stake Tuesday, a sizable prize in two states and a district that are normally afterthoughts in nomination contests. Clinton has been endorsed in Maryland by Gov. Martin O’Malley and Sen. Barbara Mikulski; Obama is backed by Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine,and is expected to do well in the largely black district.

“Senator Clinton has a lot of friends in Virginia,” Kaine said in an interview, but “we’re feeling pretty good” about Obama’s Virginia chances. Republicans will award 116 delegates in the trio of races dubbed the Potomac Primary.

Huckabee, who posted five Southern victories after being practically counted out of the contest, demurred when asked Wednesday if he’d be an irresistible running mate for McCain, the opponent he likes. “I still want to be the irresistible choice to be the president,” he said on CBS’ “The Early Show.”

Despite his strong night, Huckabee trails both McCain and Romney in the delegate count. Other contenders took a pass for once on the morning-after talk shows.

Obama won 13 Super Tuesday states; Clinton, eight plus American Samoa. Clinton scored the advantage in delegates, bring her total to 845 to Obama’s 765, by the latest accounting. The road ahead was long for the Democrats: It takes 2,025 delegates to claim their nomination.

Delegate tabulations continued Wednesday, possibly longer, and the victor in one race remained unsettled – the Democratic caucuses in New Mexico.

Clinton won the biggest state, California, capitalizing on backing from Hispanic voters. Obama scored victories in Alabama and Georgia on the strength of black support, and won a nail-biter in bellwether Missouri.