NEW YORK -- There is no fatter Tuesday in the race for the presidential nominations.
An unprecedented nationwide crush of voting will impose a super-sized measure of electoral reality on the presidential field on Tuesday, with a wild coast-to-coast primary set to anoint clear favorites -- and award all-important convention delegates -- to the remaining contenders.
The day (and late, late night) could all-but crown a Republican nominee, with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., hoping to sweep enough winner-take-all states (in addition to bigger-than-big California) to leave him with an overwhelming advantage over former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., and former governor Mike Huckabee, R-Ark.
On the Democratic side, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., fight a round that will go to the judges' scorecards: They are poised to split delegates in contests across the country, given party rules that award delegates based on vote percentages.
Clinton called the day ahead "both intriguing and somewhat mystifying," saying on ABC's "Good Morning America" on Tuesday that "we're all kind of guessing about what it's going to mean, because it's never happened before."
"Right now I am ahead in both the popular vote and in delegates; I hope I stay there," Clinton said. "With two wars abroad and a looming recession, people need a president who's ready on day one to be commander in chief and to turn the economy around. We also need a candidate who will be able to win in November."
Countered Obama, also on "GMA": "We're seeing that the American people are understanding, unless we change how things work in Washington -- reduce the power of special interests and get our economy back on track -- that a lot of people are going to be hurting."
Behind the spin and expectations-setting are the raw, intimidating numbers: 43 races in 24 states and one territory, for a total of 23 Democratic contests and 21 for the Republicans. In a single day's voting, Democrats will award 1,681 convention delegates (87 percent of the total needed to clinch the nomination), while Republicans have 1,038 delegates at stake (83 percent of the way to the magic number), making for one electorally obese Fat Tuesday.
In an odd quirk, the top five candidates are all voters themselves on Tuesday: All live in Feb. 5 states, and are hoping for some hometown love.
On a stormy day through much of the country, brace for election results to roll in like the Giants' defensive line, starting with the close of West Virginia's Republican convention at 12:30 pm ET and finishing (maybe) with Alaska's poll closing at midnight ET.
Georgia's polls close at 7 pm ET, and the first big hour to set your clock for is 8 pm, when 10 states (including Connecticut, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, and Tennessee) cut off voting.
The biggest prizes will force us to wait a bit longer: New York's polls close at 9 pm, and California's at 11 pm ET -- though results from the Golden State aren't likely to be tabulated until Wednesday morning or later.
It could be California that determines winners and losers -- and don't wait up for the results unless you absolutely have to. "A record number of California voters is expected to cast ballots in today's presidential primary, fueled by excitement over tight and highly anticipated races on both the Democratic and Republican sides," John Wildermuth and Zachary Coile write in the San Francisco Chronicle.
"But the deluge of voters might also mean a record wait to find out who won the largest of two dozen states choosing candidates for president today."
Maybe it is worth waiting up for, though: "Should Mr. McCain win in Massachusetts and hold on to California, that would probably be the lights-out moment at the Romney headquarters," Adam Nagourney writes in The New York Times.
"If Mr. Obama wins California, that is a real momentum blocker for Mrs. Clinton: There are few states in the country that are more identified with the Clinton presidency than this one."
Romney is battling for his candidacy's survival, coming off of tough losses to McCain in South Carolina and Florida. But recent polls have shown him very much in the mix in delegate-rich California, and he has the collective weight of the conservative talk-show aristocracy hoping to stop McCain's momentum.
"What you're seeing in our party is that there's a coalescing of support around my candidacy because a lot of people don't want to take the left turn that would be represented by John McCain becoming our nominee," Romney said on "GMA."
"The conservative voices of people like Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity have come out, endorsed my campaign, and conservatives are saying, 'Look, we've got to take this party, we don't want to have John McCain take it over.' "
(That's not quite accurate about Rush -- though it's very, very close.)
But McCain began airing a new TV ad on Monday that calls Romney's GOP credentials into question, unearthing video clips that all GOP campaigns have been holding on to for months: "I was an independent during the time of Reagan-Bush; I'm not trying to return to Reagan-Bush," Romney says in an excerpt from a 1994 Senate campaign debate included in the ad.
With the compact and predictable one-state-at-a-time voting mechanism giving way to a de facto nationwide primary, the candidates found new ways (and new voices) to make their final pitches.
Jack Nicholson endorsed Clinton, while Robert De Niro hit the trail for Obama, and Dave Matthews came out in support of Obama. Obama's candidacy even inspired three living members of the Grateful Dead to reunite for an evening.
Clinton hosted a first-of-its-kind nationwide video town hall -- broadcast over the Internet and on the female-friendly Hallmark Channel -- on Monday, and grabbed a seat on Letterman's couch to reach a nationwide audience on the night before the big voting started.
"In my White House," she told Letterman, "we will know who wears the pantsuits."
A hoarse Clinton may or may not have teared up on Monday, but the Democratic race has undeniably tightened over the past 10 days. National and state-level polls show Obama mounting a late surge, with Clinton trying to hang on to a lead she's nursed virtually since the campaign's long-ago start.
While the Democratic race will produce a delegate leader (and the proportional system makes it hard to make up ground the longer a lead holds), Super Tuesday will not settle anything. "To paraphrase Churchill," Democratic strategist Bill Carrick tells The Washington Post's Dan Balz, "the Democrats are at the end of the beginning and the Republicans are at the beginning of the end."
The proportional system "could reward Clinton and Obama in their respective pockets of strength: she among working-class voters, women and Latinos; Obama among young voters, the more affluent and African Americans," Maria L. La Ganga and Peter Nicholas write in the Los Angeles Times.
"Advisers to Clinton (N.Y.), once the clear front-runner, were stoic as they envisioned a 'lengthy process' that could continue for months, possibly through the Democratic National Convention in late August," Anne Kornblut and Michael Shear write in The Washington Post.
Money's not an issue yet, but here's a big hint that it could be soon: "Clinton officials also confirmed that she had raised about $13 million in January, compared with $32 million Obama raised in the same period," Kornblut and Shear write.
The Republican race entered its biggest day yet with a flurry of charges and countercharges that tracked the race's major themes.
"Seeking to derail the front-running McCain, Romney hopscotched from Tennessee to Georgia to Oklahoma and argued that McCain is too liberal," USA Today's David Jackson writes. Said Romney, in Nashville: "On issue after issue, he is out of the mainstream of the Republican Party."
California could be key on the GOP side as well; Romney made a late trip to Long Beach on Monday, and McCain hastily arranged a visit to San Diego for Tuesday. But the superstitious candidate has allowed himself to start believing that Tuesday will be a very big day for him.
"After his presidential campaign's near-death experience last summer, Mr. McCain now see-saws between projecting an aura of confidence and back-pedaling when he grows nervous about presuming too much," Elisabeth Bumiller writes in The New York Times.
"He has begun to hurl some barbs at the Democratic presidential candidates, Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, who have criticized him as wanting to keep American forces in Iraq for 100 years."
There's a reason for the optimism: "With McCain all but certain to reap big troves of delegates in New York, New Jersey, and many other northeastern states, Republican officials who had been reluctant to endorse him earlier are now clambering aboard his campaign, creating a growing bandwagon effect," Peter Canellos writes in The Boston Globe.
"One sign of confidence in Camp McCain: The Arizona senator is planning to head overseas this weekend for an annual military conference in Germany and talks with the top leaders of Britain and France," Paul West writes in The Baltimore Sun. "One sign of caution: He added a last-minute campaign stop today in California, where at least one statewide poll showed a surge by Mitt Romney."
If McCain does emerge as the nominee, Rush Limbaugh's head might explode. El Rushbo pronounced McCain guilty of the apostasy of reaching out to (gasp!) Democrats. "This is how he's going to get even with Republicans for defeating him in South Carolina in 2000," Limbaugh said, per ABC's Jennifer Parker.
"The Republican Congress will effectively be neutered." Limbaugh also picked up on a Romney line of attack (though not quite in the way Romney might put it): "We've got drive-by media organizations having orgasms about McCain."
The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz labels it "the best sideshow in presidential politics: the nation's top radio talker trying to take down the Republican front-runner in today's Super Tuesday showdown."
"McCain's strategists have been quietly reaching out to commentators such as [Sean] Hannity but don't believe the attacks are costing their candidate many votes, noting that McCain won Florida last week even though Limbaugh broadcasts from Palm Beach," Kurtz writes.
"But the campaign yesterday released a letter to Limbaugh from Bob Dole, saying McCain has been a loyal Republican on many issues and that 'I proudly wore his POW bracelet bearing his name while he was still a guest at the Hanoi Hilton.' "
As Rush takes on McCain, Huckabee (his campaign hinging on some Southern love) takes on Romney. "He's decided it's easier to pry votes away from Romney than from the candidate who's getting more and more support from the GOP establishment," Jim Galloway and Bob Kemper write in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
One Obama edge coming into the day: "Obama's support in Republican-leaning 'Red States' will give him more ammunition to challenge Senator Hillary Clinton for a majority of the 1,681 delegates at stake," Bloomberg's Julianna Goldman reports.
"Obama, . . . who last week was rated the Senate's most liberal member by National Journal magazine, is favored to win most of the five Republican strongholds -- Alaska, Idaho, North Dakota, Colorado and Kansas -- holding caucuses."
One Clinton edge: "Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) has nearly twice as many endorsements as Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) from lawmakers representing districts that campaign strategists consider the most important on Super Tuesday," The Hill's Alexander Bolton and Sam Youngman write.
She has a 29-13 edge in districts that will award odd numbers of delegates on Tuesday -- very possibly the key to building up a delegate advantage.
And (just maybe) a little mischief on the Democratic side, courtesy of Clinton campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe. Asked by New York 1 if it would be a "good idea to put him on the ticket," McAuliffe quickly placed Obama on Clinton's short list: "Sure it would be, absolutely. How could you deny consideration of someone who has excited so many people?"
(Good question for voters, Terry.)
Countered Obama, on "GMA": "I'm running for president, and I don't think that Sen. Clinton would be willing to accept the vice presidency. I think it would be presumptuous for me," he said. "If I were 20 points down, then you probably wouldn't be hearing it. I think it's a sign that we're doing very well."
ABC will air five hours of live programming, starting at 8 pm ET, with Charlie Gibson, Diane Sawyer, and George Stephanopoulos anchoring. Follow all the action through Nightline on the West Coast, with Terry Moran and Cynthia McFadden, and all evening long at ABC News Now, with Sam Donaldson and Laura Marquez anchoring.
I'll be blogging as the results roll in, at ABCNews.com's Political Radar.
It's a big day on all the networks.
Check out this Super Tuesday cheat sheet, with a top five list of states to watch closely, from ABC's political unit.
And it's a homecoming evening for the candidates -- see where they will be spending Super Tuesday in The Note's "Sneak Peek."
Also in the news:
From the department of Big Themes . . . The Wall Street Journal's Gerald Seib sees the campaign turning far more on character and style than on issues. "As voting unfolds today on this Super Tuesday, the two hottest candidates at the moment -- Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama -- are most striking for their ability to appeal to independent voters in the middle of the ideological spectrum, and for their willingness to compromise to get there," Seib writes.
"In other words, the election of 2008, thus far, is less about ideology and ideas and more about governing style and leadership ability -- intangible qualities on which voters are placing a higher priority than on issues."
An odd admission (pre-spin?) from Clinton advisers is featured by The New York Times' Patrick Healy: "Privately her advisers also acknowledge that if Mrs. Clinton wins the Democratic presidential nomination, she will have to improve her performance at huge rallies to keep voters enthusiastic about her candidacy during the long haul of a general election. 'Big rallies are clearly not her strength,' said one senior adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity in exchange for a blunt assessment of his candidate."
The New York Times' Jeff Zeleny sees Obama's stump changing as his events have grown larger -- and as events have broken his way. "As the crowds have grown, it seems, the sales pitch has softened," he writes.
"Gone are the days when Mr. Obama articulated a litany of specific differences he holds with his lone remaining Democratic rival, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. In the final hours of the quest for votes on Tuesday, Mr. Obama was looking forward, devoting as much time to talking about Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona."
If Obama has a big day, he may owe former senator Tom Daschle, D-S.D., more of a debt of gratitude than he does Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. "Behind the scenes, Mr. Daschle has played an intriguing role in Mr. Obama's Senate career and presidential campaign as a confidant and an early supporter who lent authority to Mr. Obama's ambitions when others doubted the prospects of the young newcomer to Washington," Carl Hulse and Jeff Zeleny write in The New York times.
"Now Mr. Daschle, who represented South Dakota in the Senate until his defeat in 2004, is becoming increasingly active on behalf of Mr. Obama, serving as ambassador to big-name backers like Mr. Kennedy, building support among American Indians, pushing back against the Clinton campaign and making personal appearances of his own," Hulse and Zeleny write.
If Obama doesn't have a big day, this just might be part of the reason. "A national women's rights group supporting Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) distributed an e-mail yesterday accusing Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) of being soft on abortion rights, revisiting an eleventh-hour attack that some analysts credited with swaying female voters in New Hampshire," Matthew Mosk writes in The Washington Post.
"The e-mail from Rosemary J. Dempsey, president of the Connecticut National Organization for Women, told members that Obama's record during his time in the Illinois Senate included several instances in which he voted 'present' instead of yes or no on abortion-related legislation."
If the war plays a big role in Tuesday's voting, ABC's Jake Tapper points out an interesting nugget, from the Center for Responsive Politics' latest analysis: "War opponent Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, received the most from donors in the military, collecting at least $212,000 from them. Another war opponent, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, was second with about $94,000."
The Chicago Tribune's Jill Zuckman chronicles the McCain comeback: "He put his campaign back together this way: asking friends for help, cutting costs, adjusting his position on immigration, making the troop surge his cause and relying on a band of dedicated volunteers. Other ingredients included lots of talk, sheer will -- and a good deal of luck, as McCain is the first to acknowledge."
Said McCain: "I realized a lot of things had to break my way, some of which weren't under my control."
On the other side of that coin, GQ's Robert Draper writes up the story of how Romney found his voice -- just maybe too late. "The Romney curse was this: His strength lay in his adaptability," Draper writes. "In governance, this was a virtue; in a political race, it was an invitation to be called a phony. In both Iowa and New Hampshire, the campaign had tacked this way and that, field-testing losing formulas."
A delicious anecdote, as told by eldest son Tagg: "You should see the new video we're posting on the Web site," he said, describing a five-minute clip of the Romneys vacationing at their New Hampshire retreat on Lake Winnipesaukee.
"My dad, he's got all these whiskers on his face -- I mean, I think that's good. And he's watching my brother light a firecracker -- standing over him and yelling, 'You moron!' " Grinning, he added in a low voice, "The campaign's a little nervous about it -- it's risky."
If Romney doesn't emerge as the nominee . . . his kids may be asking for a refund. "Today Mitt Romney, who likes to say that everything he touches turns into a success, is facing the jarring prospect of a loss in a Republican presidential race to which he devoted two years of his life and at least $35 million of his fortune," Michael Levenson writes in The Boston Globe.
"Even as Romney promised that he would win today and 'hand the liberals in our party a little surprise,' he said he wished that he had a few more days to campaign. Perhaps if the election were held on Friday, he said, he could really communicate his message that he, not McCain, is the country's conservative champion."
The scene in Massachusetts (a glum place that a certain 18-1 team calls home): "Three of the four top presidential primary candidates zipped through town on the eve of today's Super Tuesday vote, making Boston look a shade more like the Hub of the Universe than it has in any presidential primary in history," Lisa Wangsness writes in The Boston Globe.
The scene in New York (parade central before it becomes election central on Tuesday): "John McCain vowed yesterday that he would carry New York against either Hillary Rodham Clinton or Barack Obama in the fall," Carl Campanile writes in the New York Post.
Said McCain, after receiving the endorsement of former governor George Pataki, R-N.Y.: "I will compete and win in New York state in November as the nominee of my party."
On the Democratic side, "Hillary Clinton is favored to carry her home state of New York on Super Tuesday, but Barack Obama is looking to limit the size of her victory, and her share of the 232 delegates up for grabs," Elizabeth Benjamin writes in the New York Daily News.
In Connecticut (where Clinton got emotional Monday morning): "Barack Obama filled a downtown Hartford arena with the curious and the committed, offering himself as a cause, not a candidate for president," Mark Pazniokas and Daniela Altimari write in the Hartford Courant.
"Obama generated a vibe Monday night that veered from religious revival to rock concert, repeatedly pumping up a crowd of 17,000, then pausing to drink in their energy and applause."
California: "Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton felt enough heat from the surging campaign of her rival Barack Obama in California that she dispatched her husband, former President Clinton, for a second day to shore up support among African American and Latino voters," Phil Willon and Richard C. Paddock write in the Los Angeles Times.
Georgia: "Romney said he expects to do well here Tuesday and in California and in many of the other 20-plus states where ballots will be cast," Aaron Gould Sheinin writes in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Said Romney: "I keep hearing from my friends here that Georgia is going to come my way."
Missouri: "Both candidates' stops underscored that Missouri is competitive ground for both parties," per the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Jo Mannies and Jake Wagman. "Clinton is vying with Democrat Barack Obama, who headlined a huge rally Saturday night. Romney is jockeying with fellow Republicans John McCain and Mike Huckabee, who each addressed supporters in St. Louis County last week."
New Jersey: "New Jersey received unprecedented attention from presidential hopefuls Monday with two candidates making visits and two others sending their children to campaign on the eve of today's Super Tuesday primary," Scott Fallon and John Reitmeyer write in The Record.
"In East Rutherford, Sen. Barack Obama continued his effort to narrow the gap between him and Democratic rival Sen. Hillary Clinton with a rally at the Izod Center. Meanwhile, Republican Sen. John McCain brought former rival Rudy Giuliani and others to campaign in Central Jersey and solidify his numbers," they write. "Clinton and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney sent their grown children to campaign in Clifton and Monmouth County, respectively, in what has become the state's most significant presidential primary in memory."
Some intrigue in Oklahoma: "Attorneys for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney wrote a letter to Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson Monday in which they accused fellow Republican candidate John McCain's campaign of making illegal 'robocalls' to Oklahoma residents within the last few days," Randy Ellis writes in The Oklahoman. "Following a brief investigation, assistant Attorney General Thomas Bates wrote a letter to the McCain campaign" ordering the calls to cease.
With all this voting -- here's guessing it won't be smooth everywhere. "Some are concerned that there could be chaos at the polling booths with malfunctioning machines and disputed results," ABC's Marcus Baram reports.
"Six states, including New York, New Jersey, Georgia, Arkansas, Delaware and Tennessee, are 'considered at high risk for having election results affected by machine malfunction or tampering,' according to a report by Common Cause and the Verified Voting Foundation."
The New York Sun's Seth Gitell points out another politician with plenty on the line Tuesday: Mayor Michael Bloomberg, I-N.Y., whose potential candidacy looks more like a non-starter the better McCain fares: "Today is make-or-break for Mr. Bloomberg's notion of a running as an independent presidential candidate," writes Gitell, who finds little support for Bloomie in his hometown of Medford, Mass.
"Well, you know, Dave, I'll tell you, I've been giving a lot of careful consideration to that, and it's really down to you and Regis." -- Hillary Clinton, on her potential running-mate choices, clearly knowing how to get a laugh out of Letterman's audience.
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