Lessons of Super Tuesday

Sen. John McCain is calling himself the front-runner in the Republican race for president. McCain benefited from Rudy Giuliani's departure and subsequent endorsement. There is still no clear front-runner on the Democratic side.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Many people expected that by this morning, the day after Super Tuesday, we would know the presidential nominees of one party, maybe both. Not going to happen. To talk about what did happen on Super Tuesday, NPR's Cokie Roberts joins us once again this morning for analysis. Cokie, good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: Now, let's talk first about the Republicans. John McCain did win a lot of victories yesterday.

ROBERTS: He did, indeed. And he now has, according to NPR's projections, 613 delegates of the 1,191 needed for nomination. So he's in good shape. He's over half. He's on his way. And he was - he had a huge benefit from the fact that Rudy Giuliani had convinced the state committees of several big states to change their rules so that the primaries were winner-take-all primaries. So any place big that McCain won, he won all the delegates.

INSKEEP: Even if he only got 30, 35, 40 percent of the vote.

ROBERTS: Of the vote. And so that was very helpful to him. And that's something that certainly was not the case on the Democratic side, where you have these proportional delegates allocations, or in some cases, some proportional by states, some proportional by Congressional district. So what we projecting for the Democrats this morning is Hillary Clinton with 845, Obama with 765 out the 2,025 needed. Now, Steve, New Mexico stopped counting at 5:00 this morning, saying they wanted to go to sleep. They'll start again later today. But at the moment, some 70 votes separate Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in New Mexico.

INSKEEP: Seventy votes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about these delegates a little bit more, particularly on the Republican side. John McCain, you said, is more than half the way to the delegates that he would need for the nomination. And these delegates are the people who - formally, at least - will decide who is the nominee of the party. Why would we not say that John McCain has it cinched?

ROBERTS: Well, I think he pretty much does, in truth. But there are more primaries to go. Mike Huckabee had a surprising showing yesterday, doing very well, particularly in Southern states where the evangelical vote was enormous - over 70 percent in several of the states. And conservatives - who are, after all, the bulk of the Republican Party - don't like John McCain still. So 60 percent of the people who voted yesterday called themselves conservatives in the Republican votes, and he didn't win them. So there's still some question mark there.

INSKEEP: And still a scenario where conservatives who do not like John McCain could rally behind…

ROBERTS: It's hard to see. It's hard to see. And it's hard to see how Mitt Romney stays in, and whether his family lets him keep spending his money. But the - you know, you can - he still doesn't have the delegates. Until he has the delegates, you can't say that it's over.

INSKEEP: I suppose one possible scenario is McCain wins conservatives over. Another possible scenario might be like President's Bush's father in 1992. He got his party's nomination, but conservatives were not enthused about that election.

ROBERTS: Well, and that is always a possibility, particularly if people like Rush Limbaugh, who's been a real tear against McCain, stays like that. But, you know, they could stay home. That's the option there.

INSKEEP: Now let's talk about the delegates on the Democratic side. They're not all decided by these primaries and caucuses that we've been focusing on.

ROBERTS: Not at all. There's this whole batch of elected officials and party officials called superdelegates, and they are officially uncommitted - although quite a few are committed, and those numbers that I just gave you include superdelegates. But they could switch. And they are being wooed, Steve. Valentine's candy is showing up, all kinds of things to try get those superdelegates. Some things to keep in mind: a lot of them have labor union connections, for instance. And the AFL-CIO has not endorsed. So there's some things that could happen to swing a big batch of superdelegates. But right now, the Democratic contest looks like it is - it could go on for quite some time.

INSKEEP: And let's just go through these numbers, if we could. Twenty percent of them are superdelegates, these officials and other people.

ROBERTS: About that. I think that's right.

INSKEEP: And does that mean that you could end up with this - well, there's 80 percent decided in the primaries and caucuses. You've got two strong candidates. Could they both end up with less than the majority, and it gets decided by these delegates?

ROBERTS: Or decided at the convention, where you can see a scenario where the Credentials Committee becomes the most important people in the Democratic Party, if they decide…

INSKEEP: Deciding who gets in.

ROBERTS: …whether to seat - Michigan, for instance, or Florida - two states that have been outlawed by the Democrats for the moment because they broke the rules and had their primaries at the wrong time. So all kinds of scenarios are possible. What's probable is that Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama will the majority of delegates sometime before, mm, May.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: NPR's Cokie Roberts.

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