WASHINGTON – Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama found themselves in an airtight duel over delegates Wednesday, each laying claim to a majority of the Super Tuesday spoils.
John McCain enjoyed a clearer victory Tuesday night on the GOP side, as he took wins coast-to-coast and declared himself the front-runner. By claiming several winner-take-all victories, the Arizona senator was able to put more distance between himself and his closest rival Mitt Romney, who lost ground to Mike Huckabee Tuesday in southern states. McCain’s staff issued a memo Wednesday suggesting that based on their numbers, Romney would have to win nearly all the remaining 963 delegates in the contests still to be fought in order to defeat McCain and win the Republican presidential nomination.
But because all 22 Democratic primaries and caucuses Tuesday award delegates proportionally, those tallies were fluid and tight going well into Wednesday afternoon. While Clinton won delegate-rich Democratic goldmines like New York, New Jersey and California, Obama scored victory in 13 states to Clinton’s eight.
Whoever comes out on top in the delegate race with not be leading by much, and the hairline margins only set the stage for a contentious Democratic battle in post-Feb. 5 states like Maryland, Virginia, Ohio and even Pennsylvania, which votes in April.
Each campaign tried to spin the results Wednesday.
Just hours after preliminary counts showed Clinton coming away with a majority on Super Tuesday, Obama’s campaign issued a bold claim that once all delegates are tallied, they will not only have a majority from Super Tuesday, but a majority of delegates to date.
“By winning a majority of delegates and a majority of the states, Barack Obama won an important Super Tuesday victory over Senator Clinton in the closest thing we have to a national primary,” campaign manager David Plouffe said in the statement. “Obama showed that he can win the support of Americans of every race, gender, and political party in every region of the country.”
The campaign released a detailed Excel chart with state-by-state Super Tuesday projections, showing Obama with 845 delegates and Clinton with 836. That would bring the pledged delegates to date to 908 for Obama and 884 for Clinton.
Obama later attempted to retain his underdog status — a front-running underdog, if his tallies are correct.
“If I were writing this story, what I would say would be, ‘Senator Obama came in as a challenger who two weeks ago, I think, nobody thought would come out of Feb. 5 standing,” he said. “I think the Clinton camp’s basic attitude was that the whole calendar was set up to deliver the knockout blow on Feb. 5. And not only did we play them to a draw, we won more delegates and we won more states.
“What that means, then, is that we are in a fierce competition and we’ve got a lot more — many more rounds to fight … I think that Senator Clinton remains the favorite (because of institutional support and familiarity).”
But Clinton’s campaign claimed they were ahead by a hair in a conference call Wednesday morning with reporters.
Chief strategist Mark Penn said Clinton won the popular vote, and by the latest estimates was still ahead in delegates.
“We predicted we would be ahead in total delegates today. And we are ahead in total delegates today,” he said.
Political director Guy Cecil said Clinton leads in overall delegates to date, and “right now, we are projecting that we are currently in the lead of yesterday’s delegates by one.”
The campaign seemed less confident about the Super Tuesday tallies than Obama’s. Cecil said as results stream in, the campaign expects “that either candidate will be within five or six delegates of one another, essentially bringing yesterday to a draw in delegates.”
Penn said, “This is going to be a long contest — as we said, a hunt for delegates.”
A Democratic candidate needs 2,025 delegates to clinch the nomination, and 1,681 were at stake Tuesday. Incomplete Associated Press tallies showed Obama with 902 delegates and Clinton with 1,000 delegates overall. Super Tuesday wins gave Obama 700 and Clinton 739 delegates, The Associated Press estimated.
One race was still too close to call well into Wednesday. In New Mexico, FOX News affiliate KASA reported that results won’t be known until at least midday Wednesday. The Associated Press reported that provisional ballots won’t be counted until noon local time, or 2 p.m. ET.
The latest numbers from the Land of Enchantment had Clinton and Obama with little more than 100 votes separating them after 98 percent of precincts reported early Wednesday morning. More than 6,000 provisional ballots were being kept for a review.
In Missouri, Clinton was thought to have pulled out a win until Obama managed to scrape out a victory in late vote tallies. Seventy of Missouri’s 72 delegates were split evenly between the two candidates, with two yet to be determined Wednesday afternoon.
With the race moving forward, the weekend brings Democratic races in Louisiana and Nebraska. Tight polling in coming primary states of Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia next Tuesday make predictions frivolous.
The upside for Clinton, said former Texas Rep. Martin Frost, is that her lead “is made up almost entirely by the superdelegates, but she has a real advantage among superdelegates, among party officials, elected officials, and if she can kind of play this out, if she can break even, come close to break even in this next round of primaries … and if she can then run the table in Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania, she’ll be the nominee. And it’s Obama’s job to prevent her from doing that.”