Mike Huckabee won the first of 21 GOP contests on Super Tuesday, pulling out a victory in the West Virginia Republican convention even though Mitt Romney won the first round.
The former Arkansas governor pulled ahead after John McCain’s delegates apparently defected to his side. In round two, Huckabee took 51.5 percent to Romney’s 47.4 percent.
The convention had to go into a second round of voting Tuesday after no candidate took a clear majority the first time. Texas Rep. Ron Paul was knocked out, but Huckabee, Romney and John McCain moved forward.
Paul finished fourth with 10 percent among the 1,133 participating delegates in the first round, while Mitt Romney took 41 percent and Mike Huckabee took 33 percent. McCain, who started the day in New York City before heading to California, reached the second round with 15 percent.
But before Huckabee’s surprising turnaround at the convention, McCain delegates told FOX News they had been instructed by the campaign to throw their support to Huckabee.
McCain delegate John Vuolo said former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer approached him and other McCain supporters at the convention and told them he had spoken to McCain, and that the best thing to do was to support Huckabee in the hope that Huckabee could beat Romney in this winner-take-all state.
That account could add fuel to Romney’s claim that Huckabee is only undercutting his support base on Super Tuesday, and that a vote for Huckabee is a vote for McCain. That’s a claim Huckabee has fiercely denied.
The Huckabee campaign said the win gives them confidence in their strategy of competing in southern states, including Tennessee, Alabama, Missouri and Arkansas.
All three candidates made personal appeals Tuesday in West Virginia.
Romney, who is fighting to close McCain’s lead in the polls in most Super Tuesday states, merged a call for change with a pledge to stand for conservative principles before the West Virginia convention.
“I’ll make sure that the house that Reagan built is the house we live in. I’ll make sure we reach across the aisle but we don’t walk across the aisle. I’ll make sure we live by the principles that have made this party great,” he said. He also made a pitch to supporters of Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani, who dropped out of the race, saying he admired their leadership.
Touting his turnaround on abortion, the former Massachusetts governor promised to tackle Social Security, excessive federal spending and health care access.
“Washington has not been able to deal with the problems we have,” Romney told the crowd, adding: “It’s time have some people who are citizens go to Washington and get the politicians out.”
Romney also took aim at McCain, invoking the front-runner’s support of a recent immigration bill, of stem-cell funding and for energy legislation that Romney said threatened West Virginia’s coal industry.
Huckabee was candid about his lackluster showings since the Iowa caucus.
“I need you to vote for me today,” he told the Mountain State audience. He cast illegal immigration as one example of what ails Washington, while also declaring that “our tax system is beyond fixing.”
“This ought not to be about who waves the checkbook at you,” Huckabee said.
Paul, a 10-term Texas congressman, offered himself to convention-goers as “the taxpayer’s best friend.” He pledged to stick to a strict constitutional view of the president’s fiscal, foreign policy and military powers.
To applause from supporters lining the convention hall, Paul also echoed his opposition to the Iraq war and declared that “going to war needlessly … is not the solution.” He said current policies threaten to ruin the U.S. economy and currency.
West Virginia expects to post the first results among the 21 states with GOP primaries or caucuses on Tuesday. More than 1,000 delegates to the Republican national convention are up for grabs nationwide, making this the biggest primary day in U.S. history.
Jim Mazzella attended the state convention from Tucker County, and planned to support Huckabee. The former Arkansas governor has made inroads among West Virginia’s evangelical voters.
“We’re very driven by the pro-life issue, and he’s made that a very big part of his campaign,” Mazzella said. “He seems to be clear about where he stands on the issues, and I like the way he presents himself.”
Though state delegates are free to change allegiances, Romney entered the convention with the largest bloc at 210. Huckabee followed with 138, while Paul attracted 95.
But while McCain had 15 pledged to his cause, the Arizona senator expected to pick up at least some of the 160 delegates gathered by Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani before each quit the race. Romney reached out to Thompson and Giuliani supporters with Tuesday’s speech, praising each former candidate’s contribution to the race.
National polls, meanwhile, showed McCain favored in most other Super Tuesday states. Former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer addressed the convention in McCain’s stead and banked on Tuesday’s potential momentum.
“West Virginia has a chance to tell the rest of the America what the new direction for our party and our country will be,” he told the crowd. “(McCain’s) just got the values that America and West Virginia count on.”
But nearly half the delegates arrived Tuesday uncommitted to any candidate. Shirley Searls of Putnam County said she hasn’t made up her mind, but was leaning toward McCain.
“He’s the lesser of all the evils,” she said. “I just want the most conservative candidate in there.”
That didn’t sit well with fellow Putnam County delegate Bob Pennington, who backed Romney.
“I’m going to have to work on her,” he joked.
Yard signs and volunteers for the candidates greeted the state delegates as they entered the Charleston Civic Center, while other staffers hosted hospitality rooms inside. Several state and local candidate also courted party members.
The convention has had its critics. Some Republicans complained that the process for selecting delegates to the convention excluded too many of the party’s nearly 345,000 registered voters.
FOX News’ Jake Gibson and Shushannah Walshe and The Associated Press contributed to this report.