Front-runner John McCain built his lead over rivals in the race for the Republican presidential nomination Tuesday, winning key primaries in all regions of the country.
NPR is projecting that the senator from Arizona won the delegate-rich state of California, the biggest prize of Super Tuesday. Indeed, McCain won many of the biggest GOP contests of the day, including New York, Illinois, and Arizona — all states populated largely by moderate Republicans and independents. McCain also won Oklahoma and Missouri.
"We've won some of the biggest states in the country," McCain told cheering supporters at a rally in Phoenix. An underdog for months, he proclaimed himself the front-runner at last, and added. "I don't really mind it one bit."
McCain's main rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, trailed by a wide margin, winning fewer states and fewer delegates. Romney carried Massachusetts. He also won Utah, home to a large population of fellow Mormons. And he won North Dakota, Minnesota, Colorado and Montana. Speaking to supporters in Boston, Romney struck a defiant tone. "We're going to go all the way to the convention. We're going to win this thing," he said.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, meanwhile, proved he remains a factor in the race, with victories in four Southern states — Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas and Tennessee.
McCain appears to have gained a larger than expected share of the evangelical vote. Exit polls show that white, evangelical Christians split evenly across the three leading Republican candidates.
McCain was also getting strong support from moderates and people valuing experience and leadership, while Romney won the backing of the GOP's most conservative voters and people wanting a strong stance against illegal immigrants.
The projected victories came hours after Republican candidates made their final pleas for support during primaries and caucuses being held in 21 states. The Republican race had something the Democratic contest did not: a clear front-runner and the possibility of closure once the final votes are tallied.
McCain was the GOP candidate with the most momentum going into Super Tuesday, propelled by two straight wins in South Carolina and Florida as well as a string of major endorsements. He owes his victory in states such as New Jersey and Connecticut, in part, to the endorsement of Rudolph Giuliani, the former New York mayor. Giuliani dropped out of the race after seven consecutive losses, meaning McCain no longer had to fight with him over the same pool of voters. Both Giuliani and McCain attract moderate Republicans and independents. Without Giuliani in the race, many could turn to McCain.
McCain's biggest challenge: winning over conservative voters. Many are suspicious of the Arizona Republican, since he has backed a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and pushed for campaign finance reform. Talk-show host Rush Limbaugh warned that McCain would destroy the Republican Party if he got the nomination. Author and right-wing pundit Ann Coulter said she would campaign for Democrat Hillary Clinton if McCain won the party nod.
Romney has tried to capitalize on that skepticism about McCain, saying in a series of coast-to-coast stops that Republicans were telling him that McCain isn't conservative enough to represent the party of Ronald Reagan.
"Across the country, conservatives have come together and they say, you know what? We don't want Sen. McCain; we want a conservative," Romney said Monday at a campaign stop in Nashville.
Recently, McCain has tacked right on some issues dear to conservative voters. He wants to extend President Bush's tax cuts and now says he will work to secure U.S. borders before crafting a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. He says he's listening to a public that spoke loudly during last year's passionate debate over immigration.
To further assuage conservatives, McCain has rolled out endorsements from leading conservatives and aired a new television ad that evokes Ronald Reagan.
"As president of the United States, I will preserve my proud conservative Republican credentials, but I will reach across the aisle and work together for the good of this country," McCain said at a rally in Boston on Monday.
McCain has cast Romney as a flip-flopper on key issues. McCain, a Vietnam veteran and longtime member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, contends that his rival lacks the foreign policy and military affairs experience needed as the country confronts the threat of terrorism.
Romney counters by saying McCain lacks expertise on a top concern of voters: the economy.
Romney had banked on a strong showing in delegate-rich California, citing polls showing him leading McCain in that state. But McCain had earned a series of high-profile endorsements, including one last week from Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Speaking to cheering supporters in Little Rock, Ark., Huckabee said Tuesday that he's not about to drop out of the race, even though he is trailing McCain by a wide margin in the delegate race.
"The one way you can't win a race is to quit it, and until somebody beats me, I'm going to answer the bell for every round of this fight," he said.
The one-time Baptist preacher has attracted large numbers of the party's most conservative voters — the same right-flank voters Romney has spent more than a year courting. By doing so, he has helped boost McCain's fortunes.
Also still competing is Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. Paul is an iconoclastic libertarian who left the Republican Party briefly in 1988 to become the Libertarian nominee for president. A strong anti-tax and anti-federal government crusader, he is the only Republican in the field who voted against the decision to go to war in Iraq.