Celebrating his Super Tuesday victories, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said a long road lay ahead, but he was well on his way to becoming the Republican nominee for president.
With late wins in California and the winner-take-all primary in Missouri, according to major news networks, McCain had about 200 more delegates than his closest rival, though specific counts were still pending. McCain also came in first in seven other states: Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, New Jersey, New York and Oklahoma.
“Tonight, we’ve won a number of important victories in the closest thing we’ve had to a national primary,” McCain said in his home state of Arizona with his family by his side. “We still have a ways to go, but we’re much closer to the victory we’ve worked so hard to achieve.”
McCain also reached out to his main GOP rivals, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. “I salute you, I salute Governor Huckabee,” he said. “And I want to congratulate Governor Romney on his wins today.”
McCain said he was “grateful for and humbled by the prospect” of becoming the GOP nominee and as such, would work to promote the principles of the Republican Party.
On the NewsHour, syndicated columnist Mark Shields called the speech an “antidote to the last debate where [McCain] was seen as mean spirited and occasionally churlish. He was very large and more magnanimous tonight, generous in his remarks about Mitt Romney, where there had been a very tough campaign.”
For Romney, the loss in California is a particularly strong blow, as he had hoped a victory there could stop McCain’s momentum.
On Monday, polls showed the two neck-and-neck in California — RealClearPolitics.com’s average of polls between Jan. 31 and Feb. 4 showed Romney at 37 percent and McCain at 37.3 percent.
Romney made a last-minute schedule change, flying five hours across the country from Georgia on Monday to make a 15-minute speech in Long Beach, before taking a red-eye flight back to West Virginia for Tuesday’s GOP convention.
Romney also spent millions on television and radio ads in California after losing the Florida primary — he was the only Republican candidate to air television ads in the state, according to the San Jose Mercury-News.
“McCain now looks to have the nomination, winning California. But the race has opened an ominous split in the party. Romney’s hopes die with his California loss,” wrote Carolyn Lochhead for the San Francisco Chronicle.
In Missouri, retired teacher Ben Wilbers said he voted for McCain because “He’s more electable. I think he has the best chance of winning on the Republican side,” quoted the Associated Press.
In exit polling conducted for the AP, McCain got strong support from people valuing experience, leadership and the ability to beat Democrats in a general election. Romney, on the other hand, dominated among people looking for a candidate who shared their values and those wanting a hard line against illegal immigrants.