WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain seized command of the race for the Republican presidential nomination early Wednesday, winning delegate-rich primaries from the East Coast to California. Democratic rivals Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama traded victories in an epic struggle.
Clinton won the biggest state, California, in the Democratic campaign, capitalizing on backing from Hispanic voters. Obama fashioned victories in Alabama and Georgia on the strength of black support.
McCain’s victory in the Republican race in the Golden State dealt a crushing blow to his closest pursuer, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
“We’ve won some of the biggest states in the country,” McCain told cheering supporters at a rally in Phoenix, hours before he won California. An underdog for months, he proclaimed himself the front-runner at last, and added, “I don’t really mind it one bit.”
In the competition that counted the most, the Arizona senator had 522 delegates, more than 40 percent of the 1,191 needed for the nomination and far ahead of his rivals.
Even so, Romney and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said they were staying in the race.
Neither Clinton nor Obama proclaimed overall victory on a Super Tuesday that sprawled across 22 states — and with good reason. Obama won 12 states and Clinton eight plus American Samoa. But with victories in New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, the former first lady led in the early tabulation of Super Tuesday delegates.
Democratic races in Missouri and New Mexico were too close to call. No returns had been tabulated in Republican caucuses in Alaska.
“I look forward to continuing our campaign and our debate about how to leave this country better off for the next generation,” said the former first lady.
Obama was in Chicago where he told a noisy election night rally: “Our time has come. Our movement is real. And change is coming to America.”
Polling place interviews with voters suggested subtle shifts in the political landscape.
For the first time this year, McCain ran first in a few states among self-identified Republicans. As usual, he was running strongly among Independents. Romney was getting the votes of about four in 10 people who described themselves as conservative. McCain was winning about one-third of that group, and Huckabee about one in five.
Overall, Clinton was winning only a slight edge among women and white voters, groups that she had won handily in earlier contests, according to preliminary results from interviews with voters in 16 states leaving polling places.
Obama was collecting the overwhelming majority of votes cast by blacks — a factor in victories in Alabama and Georgia.
Clinton’s continued strong appeal among Hispanics — she was winning nearly six in 10 of their votes — was a big factor in her California triumph and in her victory in Arizona, too.
McCain, the early Republican front-runner whose campaign nearly unraveled six months ago, won in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Missouri, Delaware and his home state of Arizona — each of them winner-take-all primaries. He also pocketed victories in Oklahoma and Illinois.
Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, won a series of Bible Belt victories, in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee as well as his own home state. He also triumphed at the Republican West Virginia convention and said he would continue to campaign. “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.
Romney won a home state victory in Massachusetts. He also took Utah, where fellow Mormons supported his candidacy. His organization produced caucus victories in North Dakota, Montana, Minnesota and Colorado. “We’re going to go all the way to the convention. We’re going to win this thing,” he told supporters in Boston.
Democrats played out a historic struggle between two senators.
Clinton won at home in New York as well as in California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Arizona and Arkansas. She also won the caucuses in American Samoa.
Obama won Connecticut, Georgia, Alabama, Delaware, Utah and his home state of Illinois. He prevailed in caucuses in North Dakota, Minnesota, Kansas, Idaho, Alaska and Colorado.
After an early series of low-delegate, single-state contests, Super Tuesday was anything but small — its primaries and caucuses were spread across nearly half the country in the most wide-open presidential campaign in memory.
The allocation of delegates lagged the vote count by hours. That was particularly true for the Democrats, who divided theirs roughly in proportion to the popular vote.
Nine of the Republican contests were winner take all, and that was where McCain piled up his lead.
The Arizona senator had 522 delegates compared to 223 for Romney and 142 for Huckabee. It takes 1,191 to clinch the presidential nomination at next summer’s convention in St. Paul, Minn.
Overall, Clinton had 706 delegates to 611 for Obama, out of the 2,025 needed to secure victory at the party convention in Denver. Clinton’s advantage is partly due to her lead among so-called superdelegates, members of Congress and other party leaders who are not selected in primaries and caucuses — and who are also free to change their minds.
Alabama and Georgia gave Obama three straight Southern triumphs. Like last month’s win in South Carolina, they were powered by black votes.
Democrats and Republicans alike said the economy was their most important issue. Democrats said the war in Iraq ranked second and health care third. Republican primary voters said immigration was second most important after the economy, followed by the war in Iraq.
The survey was conducted in 16 states by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International for The Associated Press and television networks.
Already, the campaigns were looking ahead to Feb. 9 contests in Louisiana, Nebraska and Washington state and Feb. 12 primaries in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.