Arizona Sen. John McCain swept to easy victories in the Northeast and industrial Midwest Tuesday, amassing delegates in what he hoped would be a Super Tuesday march to the Republican presidential nomination.
McCain was declared the winner in Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Illinois and Oklahoma, seizing most of their delegates.
Chief rival Mitt Romney jumped in with a quick win in his home state of Massachusetts; where he was a one-term governor; and Utah, home to his Mormon faith. He was outmaneuvered in an old-fashioned state convention, losing unexpectedly in West Virginia to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Huckabee also took Alabama and his home state of Arkansas, and he was locked in close contests with McCain for Georgia.
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The states were the first of 21 up Tuesday in an unprecedented coast-to-coast showdown that could all but anoint McCain as the likely nominee; or breathe new life into a stop-McCain movement driven by conservatives.
Fresh from wins in the South, Huckabee said Tuesday evening that he, not Romney, would lead the anti-McCain forces into the weeks ahead.
"A lot of people have been trying to say this is a two-man race. Well, you know what, it is. And we're in it," he said to cheering supporters in Little Rock, Ark.
We're still on our feet, and much to the amazement of many, we're getting there."
Influential talk-radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity spent the day again berating McCain as a liberal and talking up Romney. Social conservative James Dobson, the head of the Colorado-based group Focus on the Family, announced Tuesday that he wouldn't vote for McCain even if he won the nomination but he did not back Romney.
"Senator McCain is not a conservative and, in fact, has gone out of his way to stick his thumb in the eyes of those who are," Dobson said.
Across the Super Tuesday landscape, McCain had a slight edge among self-identified Republicans and a big edge among independents, according to exit polls.
Romney had the edge among conservatives, taking about four of 10, while McCain took about three of 10 and Huckabee took two of 10.
None had a clear advantage among evangelical Christians, who split three ways.
McCain had been expected to win easily in states such as Connecticut, New Jersey and New York, where moderate Republicans dominate. He also looked for an easy victory in his home state of Arizona.
His bigger tests came as the contest moved to battlegrounds such as Georgia, Missouri and California.
Appearing in Phoenix on Tuesday, McCain proclaimed himself the true conservative in the race, and he criticized Romney as the liberal.
Speaking to reluctant conservatives, he also said he'd be the party's best chance to win the White House.
"I defeat (Hillary) Clinton and (Barack) Obama in a general election matchup," he said. "I have the ability to attract independents."
He even predicted that he'd win California in the fall, which hasn't gone for a Republican since the elder George Bush won it in 1988.
"I will win California," McCain said. "I will campaign in California. California is a vital state for any Republican who wants to be president of the United States, and you'll be seeing a lot of me in California as the nominee of the Republican Party. We will not write off the state of California."
In one of the day's more interesting turns, McCain forces worked a state convention in West Virginia to deny an early win for Romney, helping deliver the state and its 18 delegates instead to Huckabee.
Romney led on the first ballot, with Huckabee in second and McCain in third. Too far back to win, the McCain camp threw its support to Huckabee and gave him enough votes to win on a second ballot.
Romney supporters called it a dirty trick.
"This is what Senator McCain's inside-Washington ways look like: He cut a backroom deal with the tax-and-spend candidate he thought could best stop Governor Romney's campaign of conservative change," said Romney campaign manager Beth Myers.
Republicans awarded 1,009 delegates in 21 states Tuesday, 42 percent of the total that will select the party's nominee at the Republican National Convention in the summer.
McCain couldn't secure the nomination Tuesday even if he'd won every one of the delegates. He started the day with 93, Romney had 77 and Huckabee had 58.
But winning a sizable majority would give him a big lead in delegates and undeniable momentum heading into the rest of the contests.