Each of the Republicans can claim some kind of victory tonight, but the big winner is clearly John McCain-–with a major assist from Mike Huckabee.
John McCain won the most delegates today, with a tally that could reach as high as 600, depending on how California shakes out (it has more than half of the number needed to clinch the nomination). McCain did win the most states, but his delegate total was additionally padded by victories in some large winner-take-all states, like New York and New Jersey. He can also claim a win in the South (Oklahoma), along with a string of close second-place finishes in that region (which netted him a bundle of delegates, since those states award their delegates proportionally). His California victory makes for a powerful statement for the kind of day he had.
Mike Huckabee dramatically exceeded expectations and (with the exception of Oklahoma) has swept the South. But because those states are not winner-take-all delegate contests, he has ended up lagging far behind McCain in the overall delegate count. He also wasn’t helped by his inability to factor in contests outside of the South and in states where activist Christians don’t hold disproportionate sway. Two hundred is the most generous estimate of his delegate count. Still, Christian conservatives have made a powerful statement about their unwavering loyalty to Huckabee, who had limped into Super Tuesday with almost no money and limited media attention. There is even a possibility he will win more delegates from these contests than Romney, allowing Huckabee’s campaign to turn the tables on Romney’s and to argue that it is Romney whose lingering presence is eating into Huckabee’s base—not the other way around.
The possibility that Huckabee might win the nomination remains remote, since he seems incapable of expanding his (considerable) base of support. But his dominance among Southern conservatives was critical in preventing Romney—who has been positioning himself as the “true conservative” candidate—from scoring a string of breakout wins in the South. The loyalty of the Christian conservative base to Huckabee and the favor that he did in blocking out Romney tonight will further endear the former Arkansas governor to McCain—and increase the likelihood that Huckabee may wind up as McCain’s pick for V.P.
Despite Mitt Romney’s struggles in the South—a region where his most recent strategy might have resonated—he had a chance to partially redeem his day in California, where some late polls had given him the lead. But it appears that Romney has come up short there, and instead his victories for the day will be limited to Massachusetts, Utah and a handful of states that were not vigorously contested by the others (Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota). Super Tuesday wasn’t a complete wipeout for Romney, since McCain was not able to put together an all-regions sweep that would have ended the race on the spot. But he also failed to prove that his “stop McCain” message has caught fire. Romney can justify pressing ahead with his campaign, but it seems like the best he earned tonight was a stay of execution.