CHICAGO – The drama of the most intensive presidential nominating campaign in memory will play out on the largest stage ever today when millions of Americans, from Connecticut to California with American Samoa thrown in, cast ballots in the closest thing to a national primary that the country has seen.
Republicans appeared to be moving toward choosing Sen. John McCain, of Arizona, as their presumptive nominee, a long journey for a man who has often found himself fighting with his party as he sought to lead it.
Democrats appear far less certain of their verdict, with signs of a tightening race between Sen. Hillary Clinton, of New York, and Barack Obama, of Illinois, even in states where Clinton had held a solid lead only a week ago.
Anybody tempted to lay any bets at all just hasn’t learned the lessons of the presidential nominating contests, so far the season’s ultimate reality television. It has been The Amazing Race, with all the scripts long gone out the window.
“It’s so up in the air and so whimsical,” said Steve Jarding, a Democratic strategist. “It’s difficult to gauge because, the minute you think you have a front-runner, something happens.”
So unpredictable is the landscape that it’s not even clear that party voting will turn out two decisive winners by night’s end, even though voters in more than 20 states will have attended caucuses and primaries. For Democrats in particular, it will be hard for either candidate to pull ahead by any length because each state’s delegates are awarded proportionately – not winner-take-all.
At the very least, though, voters will shed more light on which issues are weighing on their minds, no small matter in this year of volatility. A year ago, it looked as if the Iraq war was far and away the most important issue, but this January voters in both parties have consistently ranked the economy as a higher concern.
As he headed into the Super Tuesday contests, McCain sought to sustain his momentum and focused on performing well in large states.
He is aided by Republican Party rules that permit a candidate with a clear lead to rapidly solidify his position in the first big wave of primaries. The rules allow states to award all their delegates to the candidate with the most votes, even if he has won a bare majority. And polls show McCain with strong leads in many of the larger winner-take-all states that vote today: New York, New Jersey, Missouri and Arizona.
He also has a narrow lead in California, which awards Republican delegates through a variation of the rule: The winner of each congressional district receives all of its delegates, and a few more are awarded to the winner of the statewide vote.
After McCain tweaked rival Mitt Romney over the weekend with a campaign stop in the former governor’s home base of Massachusetts, the Arizona senator confidently traversed the Northeast on Monday, looking ahead to a possible fall campaign, as Republicans coalesced around his candidacy. In New York, former Gov. George Pataki was the latest to join the bandwagon, lining up with former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former New Jersey Gov. Tom Keane.
Seeking to capitalize on discontent with McCain among conservatives, Romney broadcast a campaign ad attacking McCain on Rush Limbaugh’s syndicated radio talk show, even as former Sen. Bob Dole sent a letter to Limbaugh urging consideration of McCain’s conservative credentials.
But Romney’s efforts to court social conservatives have been complicated by Mike Huckabee’s continued presence in the race. The two tussled on Monday, with Huckabee accusing Romney of trying to suppress turnout by telling people a vote for Huckabee amounts to a vote for McCain.
Romney shot back that Huckabee should quit “whining.”
“That’s not voter suppression,” Romney said in Atlanta. “That’s known as politics.”
Even as the Democratic candidates rushed around the country, they prepared for a protracted struggle that both campaigns now expect will last another month or longer and likely will feature prominent roles for some of the states that also are likely to be battlegrounds in the general election, such as Virginia, Ohio and possibly Pennsylvania.
The frontloading of the primary calendar that was expected to lead to an early nominee has run up against Democratic Party rules that require delegates to be awarded proportionately, in most cases by congressional district. The effect is to mute the advantage of victory in the face of a strong second-place finish.
The Clinton campaign had hoped to wrap up the nomination today, drawing on well-developed political support in key Super Tuesday states such as California, New York and New Jersey.
But polls have shown the race tightening, both nationally and in key states, following Obama’s big primary victory in South Carolina and well-publicized endorsements from the most prominent members of the Kennedy family.
Campaigning Monday, Obama declared he remains the underdog as he campaigned near the home stadium of the New York Giants, who won an unlikely victory against the undefeated New England Patriots in the Super Bowl on Sunday.
“Sometimes the underdog pulls it out. You can’t always believe the pundits and prognosticators,” said Obama.
Clinton also made reference to the Super Bowl, telling David Letterman on his television show that her rough voice came from cheering, not campaigning. “Every New Yorker has a sore throat after last night,” she said.