With more than half the presidential-nomination contests decided, the scramble is on.
Super Tuesday is gone, and with more than half the primaries and caucuses now complete, neither party has settled on a candidate. Arizona Senator John McCain emerged as the clear Republican front-runner with his impressive wins Tuesday night, piling up more delegates than rivals Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee combined. But on the Democratic side, most tabulations had Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama separated by fewer than 100 delegates, with neither anywhere near the 2,025 needed to secure the nomination.
Because both Democrats won impressive victories across the map, their respective camps spun the results as proof of their broad appeal and the narrowing gap between their bases of support. That could mean the fight for the Democratic nomination could drag on through the sporadic primaries and caucuses in early summer and spill over into the Democratic convention in Denver in August, which could be disastrous for the party, according to Roger Simon, chief political columnist for Politico.
"The problem for Democrats is that Barack Obama maintains a narrow lead in the number of pledged delegates won in primaries and caucuses, but Hillary Clinton has the lead in superdelegates, who are the party's power structure: the members of Congress, ex-presidents, party big shots and the like," he said. "The difficulty is — and it could be a huge crisis, if this continues all the way to Denver and Obama comes in with more pledged delegates won in competitions, but Hillary has more based on superdelegates — can the party really deny Obama the nomination?"
If they did, Simon said, it could result in a "huge explosion" when the convention starts August 25, not only angering some party loyalists, but likely enraging the record millions of voters who participated in this year's primaries, only to see their votes effectively thrown out in favor of the 796 superdelegates, who make up less than 20 percent of the total delegates who will participate in the convention . Add in the still-unresolved question of what to do with the decertified delegates Clinton "won" in Michigan and Florida — which her camp has been pushing to have recertified before the convention — and you have what could be the first truly contested nominating convention in more than a half-century.
On the Republican side, the picture is a bit clearer. Romney and Huckabee are splitting the conservative vote, which is helping McCain keep Romney at a safe distance. But McCain still has his work cut out for him. Often at odds with the party's conservative base over his support of comprehensive immigration reform and campaign-finance reform — and lately under withering fire from conservative radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh — the sometimes-quarrelsome McCain has been trying to mend fences over the past few months to smooth his path to the nomination. He'll extend the olive branch once again Thursday in his most overt effort yet, when he will speak to the Conservative Political Action Conference in D.C., an annual gathering of conservative activists.
"McCain really solidified his position as the front-runner," Simon said. "And the upcoming calendar doesn't look great for Huckabee's base of evangelical voters, but his wins give him enough money to stay in the race and keep taking votes from Romney, which is the nightmare scenario for Romney, because the longer Huckabee stays in, the more it helps McCain and hurts Romney."
Even if McCain can't totally win over the conservative wing of the party, he has a number of open and proportional primaries coming up that could play to his appeal to moderates, Independents and some Democrats, who could help put him over the top.
For the Republican candidates, attention now turns to Saturday's contests in Kansas, Louisiana and Washington, where 126 delegates are at stake, then to Tuesday (February 12) contests in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia, with 119 delegates up for grabs. The last big delegate payday, though, is March 4, when Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island and Vermont will go to the polls, with 265 delegates in the balance.
It's a similar story on the Democratic side, where Louisiana, Nebraska, Washington and the Virgin Islands will vote Saturday to decide 204 delegates, followed the next day by Maine's caucus for 34 delegates. On Tuesday, D.C., Maryland and Virginia will decide on 237 delegates, and then the last big prize — 444 delegates on March 4 — will be decided by Ohio, Texas, Rhode Island and Vermont.
But, in keeping with this campaign season's unpredictability, it's been hard to call the upcoming races because the candidates expended so much energy on the Super Tuesday states that none of them have spent much time in the remaining states. So, stay tuned.
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