John McCain dominated the Super Tuesday primaries across the nation, winning in almost every region except the South, where Mike Huckabee showed surprising resilience. Mitt Romney held onto second place in the delegate totals but fell far back, with McCain leading more than 2-1 with half of the country decided. It may not have been a knockout punch, but the combination of McCain and Huckabee gave Romney a body blow last night.
McCain won nine states, including all of the major winner-take-all contests:
John McCain rolled to victory in big-state primaries across the nation Tuesday, but rivals Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney notched enough wins to keep the race for the Republican nomination alive.
McCain won primaries in California, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Missouri, Delaware, Illinois, Oklahoma and Arizona, his home state.
Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor who has appealed above all to white evangelicals, beat expectations across a large stretch of the Bible Belt. He won Alabama, West Virginia and delegate-rich Georgia and Tennessee -- big trophies for a man who long ranked as an afterthought in the race for the White House.
However, the 21 Republican contests on Super Tuesday proved a disappointment for Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts. He took his home state, but his other victories in early returns were in the relatively small states of Utah -- where he was buoyed by fellow Mormons -- Minnesota, Montana, Colorado and North Dakota.
McCain told the Phoenix crowd that he had to "get used to the idea that we are the Republican front-runner" campaign. The Republican Party will have to get used to it as well. McCain hasn't been welcomed by its activists and its punditry, but its voters have welcomed him -- and done so overwhelmingly.
One of the complaints about McCain's early victories was that they came in open primaries. Florida helped push back against the notion that McCain wasn't winning with Republicans, but Super Tuesday convincingly showed it false. California, New York, Arizona, Oklahoma, Connecticut, and Delaware are all closed primaries, and McCain took them all handily. Geographically as well, McCain showed real strength, and his narrow win in Missouri broke the hearts of Romney supporters who had hoped to take a major winner-take-all state last night.
Where does this leave the race? According to the latest delegate counts, McCain now leads Romney 615-268, with Huckabee in third place with 169. Almost 1400 delegates remain in play through the rest of the primaries, though, and Romney has a chance to turn it around -- but it's a slim chance, especially with Huckabee remaining in the race. McCain needs only 466 more delegates, about a third of what's left, to clinch the nomination, while Romney would have to win two-thirds and keep Huckabee from winning any more at all.
That's a tall order, even for the man who rescued the Salt Lake City Olympics and created the huge success at Bain Capital. He'll need to almost run the table to do it. Unfortunately, not enough states in the rest of the primaries allocate on a winner-take-all basis; only Virginia, DC, and Vermont do that, which means Romney would have to win popular votes in the rest of the states by a 2-1 margin. All McCain has to do is place a strong second most of the way to cruise to a victory.
Romney will probably stay in the race, as will Huckabee, for the next couple of weeks to see how the race progresses and to see whether he can consolidate his extraordinary support from conservative talk radio into any momentum. If none can be seen by the middle of February, the race could be over altogether -- and much sooner than the Democratic primaries.
This is John McCain's race to lose. Who would have guessed we'd be saying that in July of last year?
Addendum: We should hope that Ron Paul and his supporters will accept reality at this point and withdraw. Paul won a whopping 10 delegates last night to bring his total to 16. Given that Paul now faces a significant primary challenge to his seat -- as does Dennis Kucinich -- expect Paul to focus on keeping the job he has, starting sometime this week or next.