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McCain Emerges as Front-Runner While Democrats Spin Super Tuesday Wins

Fresh off impressive coast-to-coast primary wins, Republican presidential hopeful John McCain laid claim Wednesday to front-runner status, while Barack Obama declared delegate superiority over Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.

But the Democratic outcome was not immediately clear, with hundreds of delegates still being tallied. Even though Clinton took eight states to Obama’s 13, preliminary numbers showed her in the lead in the delegate race, as she added heavy-hitting Democratic states to her list of victories — including California, New York and Massachusetts — leaving the nomination to be decided another day.

Arizona Sen. McCain put more distance between himself and his closest rival Mitt Romney taking coast-to-coast wins, and Romney lost more ground to Mike Huckabee, whose campaign’s fundraising pales in comparison to the other two GOP candidates, but whose Christian conservative credentials gave him badly needed wins in southern states.

“We’ll be hitting the campaign trail tomorrow morning, flying back this afternoon, and hopefully we can wrap this thing up, unite the party and be ready to take on the Democratic nominee in November,” McCain told reporters Wednesday in Phoenix.

The Democratic race was 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.

But Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said the outcome was already clear.

“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. … Obama showed that he can win the support of Americans of every race, gender, and political party in every region of the country.”

In Missouri, Clinton was thought to have pulled out a win until Obama managed to scrape out an victory in vote tally. The state’s delegate count — which must be translated from precinct totals into congressional districts — wasn’t complete Wednesday morning, but the two were likely to split Missouri’s 72 delegates.

Click here to read Campaign Carl Cameron’s blog on how John McCain’s campaign regrouped after last summer’s downward spiral.

Clinton was able to hold on to victory in the delegate-rich states, capping off the night with a win in the major battleground of California, ceding ground to Obama only in smaller and mid-sized states and convincing political pundits that she had gained solid ground.

“Hillary won enough. She won the states she had to win. Obama did well, but Hillary comes out of this ahead and is the favorite for the nomination,” said Martin Frost, a former Texas congressman and a FOX News contributor.

The Illinois senator did well throughout the country and in areas that are known as red Republican states, including Alaska, Idaho and Alabama.

He also won the Connecticut, Utah, Georgia and Delaware primaries, and the North Dakota, Kansas, Colorado and Minnesota caucuses. He captured Illinois, where he is a senator but which is also Clinton’s native state.

“If there is one thing on this February night that we do not need the final results to know — our time has come,” Obama said in his hometown of Chicago. “And change is coming to America.”

Click here for a photo essay of Super Tuesday.

Clinton notched the California victory alongside critical wins in Democrat-heavy New Jersey and New York, her home state. She won primaries in Arizona, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Arkansas, where she served as first lady when Bill Clinton was governor.

“Tonight in record numbers you voted not just to make history but to remake America,” Clinton said from New York, where she repeated her claim that she’s the more experienced candidate. “We know what we need is someone ready on day one to solve our problems.”

Clinton also took Massachusetts, one state where Obama would have liked to have pulled an upset — it’s the home of Sen. Ted Kennedy and springs roots for many of the Kennedy clan who endorsed Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination last week.

As a result, the Democrats are still in a delegate dogfight since all of the Tuesday contests award Democratic delegates proportionally. 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, Frost said, 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.”

On the GOP side, McCain took the bulk of the contests, winning New York, Missouri, Arizona, Oklahoma, Delaware, Connecticut, Illinois and New Jersey before rounding out the night with a win in California.

Nine of the day’s 21 GOP primaries and caucuses are winner-take-all, and McCain won six of those races compared to two for Mitt Romney and one for Mike Huckabee.

“Tonight I think we must get used to the idea that we are the Republican Party front-runner,” the Arizona senator told a crowd of cheering supporters in Phoenix. “And I don’t really mind it one bit.”

Romney won seven races total, five of them caucuses — Alaska, Colorado, Montana, North Dakota and Minnesota. He also won primaries in Utah, where he once lived and where his Mormon church is headquartered, and Massachusetts, which he governed for one term.

Huckabee won five states, including primaries in Arkansas, where he was governor for 10 years, and Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama. Earlier in the day, he swiped victory away from Romney during the second round of ballots cast in West Virginia’s Republican convention.

His strong performance seemed to prove that he’s more than just a spoiler for Romney, as he had suggested.

“A lot of people have been trying to say that this is a two-man race,” Huckabee said in Little Rock Tuesday night. “Well, you know what — it is, and we’re in it.”

Wednesday morning, speaking with FOX News, he again brushed aside suggestions that he was running for the vice presidential nomination on McCain candidacy, as well as suggestions that he and McCain are cooperating on the campaign trail.

“I’m staying in the race because I still want to be president, and until somebody gets 1,191 delegates, we don’t have a nominee,” Huckabee said.

He added: “People see this alliance between McCain and me. What it is is both of us acutally believe that the process of politics ought to be civil, and I think that’s what’s going on. And we like each other but we’re opponents. We’re not colleagues in this thing.”

Despite the limited prizes, Romney showed confidence in Boston, telling supporters, “One thing that’s clear is this campaign is going on. … We’re going to keep on battling. We’re going to go all the way to the (Republican national) convention, we’re going to win this thing and we’re going to get in to the White House.”

Despite the heavy focus on Super Tuesday, no candidate was able to clinch the nomination.

On the Democratic side, 1,681 delegates were up for grabs Tuesday and 2,025 are needed to secure the party’s nomination. For Republicans, 1,023 delegates were being decided Tuesday and 1,191 are needed to win the Republican nomination.

No candidate had enough delegates banked already to reach those majorities.