RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
On the Republican side, John McCain racked up three wins yesterday, and Virginia was the closest of those. Party rules allow him to claim all 60 delegates there, and that brings his lead in the delegate count to more than 100.
NPR's Brian Naylor has more.
BRIAN NAYLOR: There was a bit of tension in the McCain camp as the early returns trickled in Tuesday night. Most were from rural highland counties of Virginia, and for a time the GOP front-runner was trailing rival Mike Huckabee. But as the night wore on and returns from the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington D.C. poured in, McCain took the lead for keeps. He alluded to feeling somewhat relieved at his victory party in an Alexandria hotel ballroom.
Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): And my friends, I've got to say, he certainly keeps things interesting.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Sen. McCAIN: Maybe a little too interesting at times tonight.
NAYLOR: McCain easily won the GOP contests in Maryland and the District of Columbia, but in the larger and more rural population of Virginia his problems with the party's conservative base persisted. Exit polls indicated he trailed Huckabee among evangelical Christians and also among other Republicans who call themselves very conservative. Still, a win is a win, especially in the Republican primaries, where the winner often can collect all the delegates regardless of the victory margin. McCain now has more than three times as many delegates as Huckabee and made it clear last night his sights are now set on the Democrats.
Sen. McCAIN: We don't yet know for certain who will have the honor of being the Democratic Party's nominee for president, but we know where either of their candidates will lead this country, and we dare not let them.
(Soundbite of cheers)
NAYLOR: But McCain singled out front-runner Barack Obama for special criticism, suggesting the Illinois Democrat was heavy on style but light on substance.
Sen. McCAIN: To encourage a country with only rhetoric rather than sound and proven ideas that trust in the strength and courage of free people is not a promise of hope, it's a platitude.
(Soundbite of cheers)
NAYLOR: But the vote in Virginia may have signaled another obstacle McCain must overcome if he is to be elected in November. McCain and Huckabee split the independent votes among Republicans, but more independents have been voting in the Democratic primaries. Republican Congressman Tom Davis of Virginia, a McCain supporter, says that's where McCain will focus in the coming months.
Representative TOM DAVIS (Republican, Virginia): The key to winning this election is the independent voters. Republicans by themselves can't win. There's not enough of us to win this. We've got to win them back, and I think that's where the senator's going to put a lot of his energy, but we need all factions of the party and all the wings flapping in the same direction as well.
NAYLOR: McCain will be courting a key faction of the GOP today, meeting with Republican members of Congress on Capitol Hill.
Brian Naylor, NPR News, Alexandria, Virginia.
MONTAGNE: Our coverage of the presidential nominating contest continues online. To track the current delegate counts and see an interactive guide map to upcoming primaries, go to npr.org/elections.
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