The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton split a pair of New England primaries Tuesday night and vied for bigger prizes in Ohio and Texas in a riveting Democratic presidential race. Arizona Sen. John McCain, an unflinching supporter of the war in Iraq, clinched the Republican nomination.
“We are in Iraq and our most vital security interests are involved there,” said McCain at a victory celebration nearly a decade in the making.
Obama won Vermont’s Democratic primary, gaining nearly 60 percent of the vote for a 12th straight victory over the former first lady.
Clinton countered quickly, winning in Rhode Island, and gaining roughly 60 percent support in the process.
Ohio and Texas were the big trophies of the night, rich in delegates and — according to Bill Clinton — must-win states for his wife.
Clinton held a narrow lead in Texas with votes from nearly 30 percent of the precincts counted.
The former first lady was in front in Ohio, where votes from about 40 percent of the precincts showed her with 57 percent of the vote.
There were Texas caucuses on the night’s calendar, too, held after the polls closed.
Time was running out for Clinton. Obama had the lead in the delegate chase, 1,389-1,276, in The Associated Press count.
His margin was larger — 1,187-1,035 — among pledged delegates chosen in primaries and caucuses. The former first lady had an advantage among superdelegates, but Obama picked up three during the day, narrowing her advantage to 241-202.
McCain, 71, gained the 1,191 delegates needed to win the Republican nomination, completing a remarkable comeback that began in the snows of New Hampshire eight weeks ago. President Bush invited him to lunch — and an endorsement — at the White House on Wednesday.
McCain’s last remaining major rival, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, conceded defeat after a campaign that included a stunning victory in the leadoff Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3. “My commitment to him and the party is to do everything possible to unite our party, but more important to unite our country so that we can be the best we can be,” Huckabee said in Irving, Texas.
For McCain, success came on his second try for the White House. He lost the GOP nomination to Bush in 2000.
“The most important race begins,” he said in an Associated Press interview, looking ahead to a fall campaign against either Obama or Clinton, with the country fighting an unpopular war and on the brink of a possible recession.
He pledged a “respectful, determined and convincing case to the American people” in the general election campaign. Aides raised an enormous banner bearing the magic number to serve as a backdrop for his victory celebration in Dallas.
In all, there were 370 Democratic delegates at stake in the night’s contests.
Clinton and Obama spent most of the past two weeks in Ohio and Texas, with the former first lady questioning his sincerity in opposing NAFTA and questioning his readiness to serve as commander in chief.
Polling place interviews with voters in both states suggested the criticism hit home, showing Clinton was winning the votes of late deciders in Ohio and Texas, as well as Vermont.
Hispanics, a group that has favored Clinton in earlier primaries, cast nearly one-third of the Election Day votes in Texas, up from about one- quarter of the ballots four years ago, according to interviews with voters as they left their polling places. Blacks, who have voted heavily for Obama this year, accounted for roughly 20 percent of the votes cast, roughly the same as four years ago.
The economy was the No. 1 concern on the minds of Democratic voters in Texas, Rhode Island and especially in Ohio. But in Vermont, almost as many voters said the war in Iraq was their top concern.
More than three-quarters of Ohio Democrats said international trade had cost their state more jobs than it had created.
Roughly six in 10 of the Democrats who were questioned outside the polls Tuesday said that so-called superdelegates, who are party officials, should vote at the national convention based on the results of primaries and caucuses. That was unwelcome news for Clinton, who trails Obama among delegates picked in the states but holds a lead among superdelegates.
Obama had campaigned hoping to land a knockout blow. As of March 1, his campaign had spent about $9 million on television advertising in Texas and about $4.5 million in Ohio; Clinton had spent about $5 million in Texas and about $2.3 million in Ohio, according to TNS Media Intelligence/CMAG, an ad tracking firm.
Clinton showed no sign of surrender as she campaigned on Tuesday. “You don’t get to the White House as a Democrat without winning Ohio,” she said in Houston.
“My husband didn’t get the nomination wrapped up until June (in 1992). That has been the tradition,” she added, without mentioning that this year most primaries were held much earlier than in 1992. “This is a very close race.”
For his part, Obama was already advertising in Mississippi, which holds its primary next week, and planned trips there and to Wyoming, which has weekend caucuses.
Pennsylvania, the biggest single prize left, holds its primary on April 22.
“All those states coming up are going to make a difference,” he said. “What we want to do is make sure we’re competing in every single state.”
It takes 2,025 delegates to win the Democratic nomination, and slightly more than 600 remained to be picked in the 10 states that vote after Tuesday.
Obama and Clinton took time out from their race to place congratulatory calls to McCain.
The Democratic marathon was in contrast to a Republican race that was fierce while it lasted, but has long since been settled.
McCain’s campaign nearly imploded last summer. But he regrouped, reassuming the underdog role that he relishes, and methodically dispatched one rival after another in a string of primaries in January and early February.