WASHINGTON - Senator Barack Obama scored a clean sweep last night in Democratic nominating contests from the West Coast to the Caribbean, giving him a burst of momentum in a Democratic campaign where every delegate has become crucial to capturing the nomination.
On the Republican side, a defiant Mike Huckabee easily won yesterday's GOP caucuses in Kansas and narrowly won the Louisiana primary over his party's front-runner, Senator John McCain, giving a breath of life to the former Arkansas governor's uphill campaign. Early today, the Republican Party chairman in Washington state declared John McCain the narrow winner of the state's caucuses, the Associated Press reported.
Obama won the Nebraska and Washington caucuses by greater than two-to-one margins against Senator Hillary Clinton and easily captured the Louisiana primary by a double-digit margin with heavy support among African-American voters. Obama also swamped Clinton in the US Virgin Islands caucuses. But because of the proportional awarding of delegates in the Democratic contests, the two contenders remain locked in a close battle for the 2,025 delegates needed to secure the party's nomination.
"We won north, we won south, we won in between," a jubilant Obama told a Democratic Party dinner last night in Virginia. "And I believe we can win Virginia," he added to cheers and shouts of "Yes, we can!", his cam paign mantra.
The attention now moves to Maine, where Democrats will hold caucuses today, and to Tuesday's "Potomac Primary," in which Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia will hold primaries. Polls suggest Obama is leading in Virginia and Maryland, and is expected to win in the District, so the Clinton campaign is banking heavily on wins in bigger states next month to keep her in the running.
While the Obama campaign celebrated, the Clinton camp sought to downplay Obama's success last night, even before the votes were counted. "The Obama campaign has dramatically outspent our campaign in these three states, saturating the airwaves with 30 and 60 second ads," the campaign said in a release. "Although the next several states that hold nominating contests this month are more favorable to the Obama campaign, we will continue to compete in them and hope to secure as many delegates as we can before the race turns to Ohio, Texas, and Pennsylvania."
The Illinois senator has done overwhelmingly well among black voters, helping him score victories in the South and giving him an edge in the primaries coming up Tuesday. But Clinton has done very well among Latino voters - capturing California largely because of the two-thirds of the Hispanic vote she received in that state - and her campaign expects the New York lawmaker to have an advantage in Texas because of that state's Latino vote.
Heading into yesterday's contests, Clinton held a small lead over Obama in the delegate count, 1,055 to 998, according to an Associated Press tally, which includes the results of primaries and caucuses, plus a survey of unpledged superdelegates. But Obama's campaign said last night that after his wins, he leads Clinton by about 70 delegates among those awarded in actual contests.
Obama can also claim wins in the popular vote in 18 states to 10 states for Clinton - with Tuesday's votes in New Mexico still being counted. Clinton also won in Florida and Michigan, but those delegates are not being counted because the states broke party rules to move up their primaries. National polls show the two deadlocked.
Clinton did a last-minute event in Washington state yesterday, then jetted three time zones away to woo voters in Maine. With recent polls showing Obama with a slight edge over Clinton in a matchup with McCain, Clinton told voters at the University of Maine in Orono: "You'll never have to worry about me getting knocked out of the ring; I think I can go toe to toe" with the GOP front-runner.
Earlier yesterday Obama headed to Nebraska and then to Louisiana, where he walked through a trailer complex and voiced his concern that children would have to play in such conditions. And while Clinton touted her experience, Obama tapped the call for change that has fueled many of his primary victories.
The Democratic Party stands "for change," he said at the Virginia dinner. "Not change as a slogan - change we can believe in."
Obama also tried to hammer home the argument that he is the stronger Democratic nominee against McCain, citing his appeal to independents and his success in swing states.
In the GOP race, the heartland win by Huckabee, after a strong showing in the South on Super Tuesday, interferes with McCain's march toward the nomination and underscores the fractured nature of the Republican electorate. While McCain is well over halfway toward clinching the nomination, Huckabee remains popular with the social conservative wing of the party and insisted he would stay in the race.
"It has been a remarkable day in Kansas," he said at a press conference after the results were announced. "This race is far from being over. . . . It's game on."
He said his win was significant because it was in a head-to-head matchup with McCain, and Huckabee declared that while Washington and party insiders are gravitating to McCain, voters are supporting him.
Huckabee captured an overwhelming 60 percent of the vote in Kansas, boosted by a late endorsement by Kansans for Life, a leading antiabortion group. McCain earned 24 percent of the Kansas vote, 11 percent went to Ron Paul, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney won 3 percent, and conservative activist Alan Keyes got 1 percent. Party rules award all of Kansas's 36 delegates to Huckabee, but that haul leaves him nearly 500 delegates behind McCain.
In Louisiana, it did not appear either candidate would get more than 50 percent of the vote, meaning that the 20 delegates up for grabs yesterday will be uncommitted when they go to the GOP convention in September.
Still, Huckabee's Kansas win exposed McCain's troubles with social conservatives, who view the Arizona lawmaker as weak on taxes and immigration. McCain sought to appease conservatives at the CPAC conference on Thursday, assuring them that he would be a strong defender of conservative principles as president.
McCain has earned well more than 700 delegates toward the 1,191 needed to sew up the GOP nomination, and political analysts say it will be very difficult for Huckabee to come back and win, especially since most of the Republican state contests are not winner-take-all.
But Huckabee - once considered a likely also-ran in a field dominated by better-known and better-financed candidates - has survived to become McCain's chief rival for the nomination after Romney, who was competing with Huckabee for conservative voters, dropped out of the race on Thursday.
The libertarian-minded Paul, with remarkable fund-raising abilities and small but dedicated groups of supporters, is still in the race but has yet to win a state.
While the delegate numbers and a growing number of endorsements McCain has racked up among GOP officials do not bode well for Huckabee, the affable former Baptist minister said he was not discouraged.
"I didn't major in math. I majored in miracles, and I still believe in them," Huckabee told a cheering audience yesterday at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., adding that he would not drop out of the race until McCain mathematically secured the nomination. He brushed aside suggestions that he was running to be McCain's vice presidential pick.
"I'm not at all. I don't have any illusion that Senator McCain would select me as a running mate, or that I would automatically select him," Huckabee said.
While McCain still must heal relations with his party's conservatives, he appears on track to secure the nomination in upcoming races.
Huckabee, however, vowed to press on. "There are only a few states that have voted - 27 have not," he said. "People in those 27 states deserve more than a coronation, they deserve an election."
Material from the Associated Press was also used in this report. Susan Milligan can be reached at email@example.com.