Romney, Huckabee Insist GOP Race Is Still On
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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
Don't tell John McCain's opponents that the contest is over. His Republican challengers say they'll keep fighting, even though McCain won the biggest primaries on Super Tuesday. And this morning, you could say there are two kinds of conservatives: those who've reconcile themselves to John McCain, and those who want to keep fighting.
NPR's Scott Horsley reports that for the second group, the job just got harder.
SCOTT HORSLEY: John McCain won big winner-take-all contests in New York, New Jersey, Arizona and Missouri, as well as the lion's share of delegates in California and Illinois. It was just the strong cross-country showing McCain had been hoping for. And it gives him a commanding lead in the delegate hunt.
Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Republican Presidential Candidate): And although I've never minded the role of the underdog and have relished as much as anyone come-from-behind wins, tonight I think we must get used to the idea that we are the Republican Party frontrunner for the nomination…
(Soundbite of cheering)
Sen. McCAIN: …for President of the United States.
HORSLEY: A smiling McCain told supporters gathered in Phoenix he really doesn't mind a bit.
McCain capitalized on a Republican primary structure that's designed to quickly winnow the field. Eight of yesterday's contests awarded their delegates on a winner-take-all basis, and McCain won six - plus California, which was winner-take-all by congressional district.
He was helped in the heavily populated Northeast by the support of former presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani, as well as the Independent Democratic senator, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. McCain had also hoped to do well in Georgia and Tennessee, where he campaigned over the weekend. But Mike Huckabee won both those states, along with Alabama, West Virginia and his home state of Arkansas.
Speaking in Little Rock, Huckabee called his wins in Dixie especially important, because, he says, the south is the base of the Republican Party.
Mr. MIKE HUCKABEE (Former Governor, Arkansas; Republican Presidential Candidate): A lot of people have tried to sort of push us off the stage and say that we really weren't relevant anymore, and we knew better. And tonight really affirmed that our campaign is very much alive, that we have very strong support. The real miracle of it is that with exceptionally limited resources compared to some of these other candidates, we captured states that they couldn't capture when they outspent us 20-to-1.
HORSLEY: McCain heaped praise on Huckabee last night, saying his Southern sweep was evidence of Huckabee's exceptional skills as a campaigner. McCain's backers actually threw their support to Huckabee in West Virginia rather than see that state go to Mitt Romney, who had been considered McCain's chief rival. McCain acknowledged he and Romney have been fighting a bitter, sometimes personal battle on the campaign trail.
Sen. McCAIN: He and I have been going at it pretty hard over the last few weeks, and he's a tough competitor. The closeness of the contest in California is testament to that and to the dedication of his supporters, and I salute them too.
HORSLEY: Romney won his home state of Massachusetts, along with the primary in Utah and caucuses held in Minnesota, Montana, Colorado, North Dakota and Alaska. The former businessman - who's already spent more than $35 million of his own money on the race - vowed, like Huckabee, to keep going.
Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Governor Massachusetts; Republican Presidential Candidate): I think there's some people who thought it was all going to be done tonight. But it's not all done tonight. We're going to keep on battling. We're going to go all the way to the convention. We're going to win this thing, and we're going to get to the White House.
(Soundbite of cheering)
HORSLEY: The primary math suggests an uphill battle for anyone challenging McCain, who's now approaching half the delegates needed to secure the nomination. He has more than twice as many delegates as Romney, and more than three times Huckabee's total.
What's more, some of the biggest upcoming contests in Ohio and Wisconsin allow independent voters to participate. That typically works in McCain's favor. McCain aide Mark Salter says if Super Tuesday didn't deal a knockout blow to the other candidates, it certainly gave McCain a big advantage.
Mr. MARK CALTER (Aide to John McCain): He is, obviously, a very strong frontrunner with a very large delegate lead that we think will be difficult to overcome for anybody. But we got some more contests to go through, and we're looking forward to it.
HORSLEY: McCain thanked his supporters for sticking with him through thick and thin, and joked his rollercoaster campaign has seen both. Right now, it's McCain with the thick stack of delegates, and his opponents with a thin chance of catching him.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, Phoenix.