Arizona Sen. John McCain swept Tuesday's GOP primaries, earning enough delegates to secure his party's nomination, while Democratic New York Sen. Hillary Clinton claimed a campaign turnaround based on twin victories in the key states of Texas and Ohio.
Clinton added a third win in Rhode Island, dropping only the smallest contest of the night, in Vermont. And she put an emphatic end to talk that she might pull out of the race.
"The people of Ohio have said it loudly and clearly — we're going on, we're going strong and we're going all the way," Clinton told supporters in Columbus, Ohio.
But it was not clear how much her best night since Super Tuesday would net Clinton in delegates, in part because Texas Democrats also held caucuses after the primary that will allocate about one-third of their 193 delegates to the national convention.
Democratic rules also distributed the delegate dividend in Ohio, so that even winning a majority did not entitle Clinton to much more than a bare majority of the 141 delegates at stake in the Buckeye State.
So despite Clinton's big night, the dent in Obama's delegate lead might not amount to much. He began the day leading in pledged delegates by more than 150. Clinton's wins seemed to cost him about 20, but the outcome of the Texas caucuses had the potential to cut his loss substantially. The delegate distribution effect was one reason. Some observers said Clinton needed not only to win in Ohio and Texas, but to win big.
Exit polls conducted for the Associated Press and TV Networks showed that Clinton managed to reduce Obama's potential vote over the past week by ratcheting up her attacks on his experience level. In Texas, close to 6 in 10 voters who picked their candidate within the last week chose Clinton. She also regained her earlier margins among white men, lower-income households and voters with less than a college education.
Exit polls also showed Hispanics casting 30 percent of the Texas Democratic primary vote, giving Clinton nearly two-thirds of their votes and giving her once again the domination she had enjoyed among Hispanic voters in California, New York and New Jersey on Super Tuesday.
Speaking to supporters in Ohio after she had declared victory, Clinton dedicated her March 4 wins to everyone who has ever been "counted out but refused to be knocked out."
While Clinton's victory speech focused on the fate of her party's nomination, McCain turned his attention toward national security and the role it could play in the general election. "I will defend the decision to destroy Saddam Hussein's regime," he told supporters in Texas. "The next president of the United States must encourage our allies to fight against al-Qaida."
McCain's chief rival, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, withdrew from the race, telling his supporters that he promised to work to unite the party.
Earlier in the night, Obama won the Democratic contest in Vermont, which offered 15 delegates, the smallest prize on March 4. Vermont residents told exit pollsters that the Iraq war was the largest issue for them, since the state, per capita, has the greatest number of deaths from the war. Clinton voted to authorize the use of force against Iraq in 2002.
Before the results of the Texas primary were known, Obama addressed supporters in San Antonio, telling them, "We can stand up with confidence and clarity. We are on our way to winning this nomination."
The Obama campaign has argued that, even with Clinton's wins in Ohio and Texas, it is mathematically impossible for her to erase the lead in the pledged delegate count that he built by winning 12 consecutive contests (including Vermont on March 4). Clinton would have to win a big majority among the superdelegates — the roughly 800 officeholders and party officials who act as free agents and who can support a candidate regardless of the popular vote in their state.
Exit polls showed that Ohio, Texas and Rhode Island voters were overwhelmingly concerned with the economy. The Democratic candidates focused on the issue as they slipped mentions of home foreclosures into stump speeches and fought over who had supported NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, which blue-collar workers blame for the loss of manufacturing jobs.
For Democrat Noreen Jones in Cleveland, the economy played a major role in her decision to support Clinton, whom she saw as a more experienced candidate.
"The jobs, the war and taxes — that's it. As a country, we got troubles. There comes a time when something has to be done," Jones said.
But not all Cleveland voters felt that way. Voter Daryl Manning works for the city and has two children in the city's public schools. He voted for Obama because he said he wants change.
"The idea of him just stepping up and looking for something different was a good thing," Manning said. "There have always been Bushes and Clintons."
For other voters, issues such as foreign policy loomed larger than the candidates' resumes. San Antonio voter Donna Barron, who described herself as a military brat, supported McCain.
"The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan matter. We need to stay there and finish our job," she said.
McCain plans to kick off his general election campaign Wednesday morning in Florida — a key swing state in November. Then, he is scheduled to visit President Bush in Washington, D.C., to receive the president's blessing as the presumptive GOP nominee.
The Democrats will continue to battle for the nomination and the favor of the superdelegates. Wyoming holds Democratic caucuses on March 8, and Mississippi holds its primary on March 11. The next big state voting will be Pennsylvania, which will hold its primary April 22.