McCain opens big lead in GOP race

(CBS)

This story was written by CBSNews.com political reporter Brian Montopoli.


Propelled by wins in delegate-rich, winner-take-all Super Tuesday states,

opened up a significant lead over rivals

and

in his quest for the GOP presidential nomination.

McCain took the winner-take-all states of New York, New Jersey, Missouri, Arizona, Connecticut and Delaware, as well as California, Illinois, and Oklahoma.

The California loss was a particularly tough blow for Romney, who hoped to leverage a win in the state to slow McCain's momentum following the Arizona senator's earlier wins in Florida and South Carolina.

It was a "very disappointing night" for Romney, said CBS News political consultant Nicolle Wallace.

"For all the personal millions that Mitt Romney spent, he got a whole lot of bronze medals," said Wallace.

Romney did score victories in Massachusetts, where he served as governor, and Utah, a winner-take-all state with a large Mormon population. He also took home wins in Montana, Minnesota, Colorado, Alaska and North Dakota.

Huckabee, meanwhile, had a better-than-expected Super Tuesday showing driven by victories in the south.

The Baptist minister won in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, West Virginia and his home state of Arkansas.

As of early this morning, McCain won 507 delegates, Huckabee won 145 delegates and Romney won 100 delegates in Super Tuesday voting.

Overall, McCain led with 596 delegates, followed by Romney with 153 delegates and Huckabee just behind with 152 delegates. 1,191 delegates are needed to secure the Republican nomination.

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McCain spoke to supporters last night in his home state of Arizona.

"Although I've never minded the role of the underdog...tonight I think we must get used to the idea that we are the Republican Party frontrunner for the nomination of the President of the United States," McCain said. "And I don't really mind it one bit." (Watch McCain Video)

According to CBS News national exit polls, 39 percent of Republicans cited the economy as their most important issue today, followed by illegal immigration (23 percent), the war in Iraq (19 percent) and terrorism (15 percent). Sixty-one percent of Republican respondents said they had a negative view of the U.S. economy.

When asked for the most important quality in a candidate, 45 percent of GOP voters said it was that they share their values. Experience was cited by 24 percent of respondents, followed by "says what he believes" at 22 percent and "has the best chance to win in November" at 7 percent.

Twenty-one states held Republican contests on Tuesday. Unlike the Democrats, Republicans allow states to hold winner-take-all contests, in which the winner of the statewide vote is awarded the vast majority of the state's delegates. For that reason, it is easier for a Republican than a Democrat to build a significant lead over his rivals. (For coverage of the Democratic race, click here.)

As the results came in last night, both Huckabee and Romney vowed to remain in the race.

"We're going to keep on battling - we're going to go all the way to the convention, we're going to win this thing and we're going to go to the White House," Romney said. (Watch Romney video)

Huckabee, who has complained that Romney cast the Republican contest as a two-man race between Romney and McCain, told CBS News anchor Katie Couric last night, "I think we're proving tonight that we're a choice for many, many conservatives, certainly across the south."

"Maybe Mitt Romney was right - it is a two-man race," he added. "It's just that I'm the other man in the race." (Watch Huckabee's interview with Couric)

According to CBS News exit polls, voters who said that their most important issue was the economy, the war in Iraq, or terrorism all favored McCain. Voters who said illegal immigration was their top issue supported Romney.

Voters who said they were looking for a candidate who "says what he believes," "has the right experience," or "has the best chance to win in November" also favored McCain. Romney won the support of voters looking for a candidate who "shares my values."

Huckabee secured the day's first victory, having received 52 percent of the votes cast at the West Virginia state GOP convention. According to CBS News chief political consultant Marc Ambinder, McCain called many of his representatives in West Virginia and asked them to support Huckabee in an ultimately successful effort to thwart Romney.

McCain and Romney have sparred repeatedly over the course of the campaign, though McCain had kind words for his rival as the results came in.

"This election, like any election, is a rough and tumble business," McCain said. "We all want to win and we fight as hard as we can to do it. But I have respect for people who are willing to accept the extraordinary demands - all the ups and downs - of such a tough and long contest, and Governor Romney has mine."

As Super Tuesday approached, however, the candidates unleashed dueling negative ads. They also engaged in a public spat spurred by a letter that former GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole sent to Rush Limbaugh, a fierce McCain critic, asking the talk show host to give the Arizona senator a second look. (For details, see CBS News blog Horserace.)

Romney tried to leverage conservative resistance to McCain in the run-up to Super Tuesday, advertising on Limbaugh's radio program and campaigning with McCain detractor and former senator Rick Santorum.

Huckabee also engaged in verbal sparring with Romney, who suggested that Huckabee was taking conservative votes that should be going to him. Romney said last week that "a vote for Mike Huckabee is a vote for John McCain," prompting Huckabee to accuse Romney of "voter suppression."

Though McCain's campaign seemed moribund this past summer, the senator recovered to win primaries in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida and enter Super Tuesday as the man to beat. "Lazarus must be his middle name," said CBS News senior political analyst Jeff Greenfield.

"McCain is the new face of the Republican Party," wrote CBSNews.com senior political editor Vaughn Ververs in an analysis of the Super Tuesday results. "Despite loud and sometimes bitter opposition from some conservative corners, the Arizona senator has edged ever closer to winning his party's presidential nomination."

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The Associated Press and CBS News contributed to this report.