Super Tuesday provided surprises in the both the Republican and the Democratic contests. John McCain swept to victories by huge margins in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, and Illinois. He got an important, but narrow win in the bellwether state of
Missouri. Late in the evening he took California. However the surprise of the night: Mike Huckabee who swept the South, and with it perhaps the chances of Mitt Romney to mount a serious challenge to McCain. On the Democratic side the Barack Obama “surge” proved to be closer to a ripple.
THE GOP PRE-GAME
The day started on a telling note as Romney got caught up in a public scuffle with McCain over Romney’s remark that former Senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole, who sent a letter defending McCain’s conservative voting record to Rush Limbaugh, was “the last person I would have wanted to write a letter for me.” Romney’s team scrambled to explain that he had meant no disrespect and was merely drawing a distinction between Washington insiders and advocates of change like himself, but McCain pounced and demanded an apology. Romney, according to press reports, did try to contact Dole by phone but failed.
The flap over the letter was apparently a trap Romney fell into.
In the early afternoon, Romney lost unexpectedly to Mike Huckabee in the West Virginia Caucus. The Romney campaign, which previously had declared “We have had the only organizational presence in West Virginia to speak of … It’s all Romney all the time,” could only point out that McCain supporters switched to Huckabee in the second round of balloting to defeat Romney, their common foe. However, as experts in the caucus game, the Romney camp knew full well this is how these arcane events operate. Nevertheless, the Romney camp issued a blistering press release contending a back room deal had been hatched; it was greeted with howls of derision by even sympathetic media observers.
THE GOP CONTESTS
Early in the evening there were two winners: McCain and Huckabee. In the northeast McCain swept New Jersey, New York, Illinois, Connecticut and Delaware. He then tallied wins in Missouri, Oklahoma, Arizona and California. These gave him a healthy chunk of the delegates. Huckabee took Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee. Romney came up short with wins in more home states, Massachusetts and Utah, and some small caucus states.
At first blush the victory was impressive but not overwhelming for McCain. He won the most states and the most delegates. However, he did not penetrate the South and he did not carry the conservative vote. Nevertheless, his wins were geographically diverse and most importantly, he has — with a large assist from Huckabee — vanquished his best funded foe, Romney.
He clearly has do more to earn the acceptance of conservatives and to demonstrate he can lead the party and not just win primaries, but he has moved the ball much farther down the field and without an opponent with national appeal appears unstoppable.
THE DEMOCRATIC RACE
Prior to the vote count many pundits predicted a Barack Obama wave of support. He had garnered the support of Ted Kennedy and captured the praise of most of the liberal media. Nevertheless, when the votes came in it was plain that Clinton had held off the wave and survived once again in her long march through the primary calendar.
Clinton swept New York, New Jersey, Tennessee, Massachusetts, Arkansas, Oklahoma and California. With California she received a much needed boost from a state in which some polls showed her trailing just before the election. Her spin: she had stemmed the Obama wave and is in fine shape to survive for a slow and steady march to the nomination.
Obama won in Delaware, Alabama, Illinois, Connecticut, Georgia, Kansas, Missouri and smaller caucus states. With the Democratic proportional delegate allocation Clinton’s victories did not result in a dramatic lead in the delegate count. Indeed, Obama supporters calculated that he might essentially tie in the delegate tally for the night, or even win the count for the evening. By winning thirteen contests, Obama tempered the disappointment of losing California and most of the northeast.
WHERE WE GO
McCain’s victory speech claimed the role of frontrunner. He spoke forthrightly of his determination to further the conservative philosophy of the Republican Party, a needed first step in reaching out to the base and unifying the GOP. He showed graciousness toward his opponents as well, a welcomed sign that he now understands his role as Party leader rather than combatant.
If he is successful the GOP race will conclude while the Democrats battle on, raising the possibility that the GOP wounds will heal before the Democrats. That might be the biggest surprise of all.