WASHINGTON — John McCain's string of victories in the Northeast and across the country put him on the brink of being unstoppable.
The Arizona senator was racking up enough convention delegates in Super Tuesday's coast-to-coast voting to put him within reach of the Republican presidential nomination that eluded him eight years ago. Mitt Romney sought to stretch out the bruising race for weeks more while Mike Huckabee competed for relevancy.
"We've won in some of the biggest states in the country," McCain said, adding that he's never minded the underdog role: "We must get used to the idea that we are the Republican Party front-runner for the nomination."
As results were tallied, McCain led with 345 delegates, to 129 for Romney and 115 for Huckabee. It takes 1,191 to win the nomination at this summer's convention in St. Paul, Minn.
"One thing that's clear is this campaign's going on!" Romney said, undeterred by the deficit _ and the fact that he won only caucuses in North Dakota, Montana and Minnesota as well as primaries in Massachusetts, his home state, and Utah, whose huge Mormon population was friendly to one of their own.
McCain, for his part, scored big victories in winner-take-all New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Delaware, and won in Illinois and Oklahoma, fueled there and elsewhere by a number of diverse voting groups, including men, older voters, veterans and Hispanics.
Huckabee, too, promised to press on _ and tried to edge out Romney. Christian evangelicals contributed to Huckabee's strong showings in the South and helped cut into Romney's standing among conservatives.
"I've got to say that Mitt Romney was right about one thing _ this is a two man race. He was just wrong about who the other man in the race was. It's me, not him," Huckabee told The Associated Press, emboldened by wins in West Virginia, Alabama, Georgia and Arkansas.
The trio, and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, fought Tuesday for more than 1,000 delegates at stake in primaries and caucuses in 21 states.
Going into Tuesday's voting, McCain and Romney were best positioned to win the 1,191 delegates needed to secure the nomination, and the cross-country contests tested the reach of both to the GOP's ideological segments.
McCain led among Republicans who called themselves moderates, while Romney had an edge among Republicans who said they are conservatives, according to preliminary results of exit polling in 16 states for the AP and television networks. But, in a sign of progress for McCain, the two tied among self-described Republicans. McCain, as expected, had the advantage among independents who voted in GOP primaries.
On candidate qualities, McCain got strong support from people valuing experience, leadership and the ability to beat Democrats in a general election. He was widely considered the best Republican to be commander in chief. Romney, for his part, dominated among people looking for a candidate who shared their values and those wanting a hard line against illegal immigrants.
McCain, the Arizona senator and Vietnam prisoner of war, wanted to end the contest and seize the party prize that eluded him in his first presidential bid eight years ago. With his main rival ceding the Northeast, McCain tasted victory in delegate-rich winner-take-all New Jersey, New York, Delaware and Connecticut. He also won Illinois and Oklahoma, with the same result expected in his home state of Arizona.
He had a jolt of momentum behind him after his once-crippled candidacy rebounded last month to string together a series of wins in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida. But, with a reputation for bucking the party, McCain faced intense resistance from high-profile conservative radio hosts with large audiences among the GOP rank-and-file.
"I am convinced Senator McCain is not a conservative, and in fact has gone out of his way to stick his thumb in the eyes of those who are," James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, said Tuesday in a statement to a conservative talk show host who read it on the air. He said he would not vote for McCain "as a matter of conscience," and described McCain as someone with a "legendary temper" who "often uses foul and obscene language." Dobson said he would sit out the general election if McCain was the GOP nominee.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and business executive, previously won in hard-fought Michigan, his native state, as well as scarcely contested Nevada, Wyoming and Maine. He was out to prove he could win a hotly contested state where he didn't have generational links and hoped to grab enough delegates to keep him competitive with McCain heading into the next round of contests Feb. 9 in Louisiana and Kansas, and Feb. 12 in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C.
Romney was counting on benefiting from conservative backlash against McCain, and looked to pick off delegates in big-prize California as well as win in Western caucus states to cobble together enough victories to continue his bid.
The history-making possibilities were high. McCain, age 71, would be the country's oldest first-term president when inaugurated, while Romney would be the nation's first Mormon president.
Two other candidates had the potential to be spoilers.
Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and one-time Southern Baptist preacher, threatened to siphon conservative votes from Romney, particularly in Southern states, while Paul, the libertarian-leaning Texas congressman, was positioned to a lesser degree to do the same to McCain, who draws his support from across the political spectrum.
Liz Sidoti covers the Republican presidential race for The Associated Press.