NEW YORK -- Rarely have so many winners won so little.
Befitting this chaotic, unpredictable race, five candidates declared victory Tuesday night. Four could do it with reasonably straight faces (and no, it wasn't the same four we thought were in play coming into the day).
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., slowed her opponent's momentum, her machine prevailing over his campaign's energy and late surge (and providing an effective answer to the question of whether Sen. Ted Kennedy's endorsement would swing votes). She won coastal anchors, including the big prize -- California -- but lost enough smaller states to empower a rival who's figuring out how to beat her, if slowly.
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., saw his strategy largely work, sweeping most of the red states he counted on while picking up enough other delegates (and notching a win in Connecticut -- and maybe Missouri) to show he can beat Clinton on a level demographic playing field). But he's trailing in the race for delegates, and Clinton now has a smidge of time to make up fundraising ground.
Former governor Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., rose from the mat (again) with an improbable Southern sweep. But now he faces a stark choice he'd hoped to avoid: Get aggressive (maybe even a little mean) or see his prospects fade faster than Chuck Norris' acting career (for real this time).
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was surely the day's biggest winner, emerging as the solid frontrunner on the GOP side. Yet he need look no further than his native state to see the challenge emerging from the conservative base, and he wakes up Wednesday with twice as many serious challengers as he had 24 hours earlier (and becomes the latest to learn that whatever doesn't kill Huckabee makes him stronger).
Former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., wore the most strained smile last night. But even as he runs out of home states, he can easily go on (assuming Ann has given the go-ahead to keep writing checks.)
"Instead of producing nominees, Tuesday's voting revealed the fault lines for a continuing fight within each party," Doyle McManus and Peter Wallsten write in the Los Angeles Times.
"The overall outcome: These primary races are not over in either party. The battle between Clinton and Obama will continue, probably through the March 4 primaries in Ohio and Texas and possibly beyond. McCain appears almost certain to win his party's nomination, but only after battling Romney and Huckabee for delegates in more states."
So it is that a day we hoped and assumed would sort things out only brings more of the same. The road ahead seems longer for the Democrats, with two evenly matched opponents set for a long slog that neither campaign is fully equipped for.
"Get ready for weeks -- if not months -- of a tightly fought Democratic presidential race, while last night's big winner on the GOP side, John McCain, could soon be sitting on the sidelines, secure in victory, trying hard to raise money and pull together a fractious Republican coalition," Peter Canellos writes in The Boston Globe.
The Chicago Tribune's Mike Tackett: "One clear verdict: The near-national primary of Super Tuesday provided candidates in both parties with enough ammunition to make plausible claims they had done well enough to move on to the next round of primaries. And make claims they did."
Next up: Some morning press availabilities followed by Senate business on Wednesday (body language alert), voting from Louisiana to Washington state on Saturday, a push to next Tuesday's "Potomac Primary" -- and yet another rejiggered set of plans and expectations.
The most important numbers, courtesy of ABC's political unit (with 28 percent of Tuesday's delegates still to be awarded): Clinton won 612 delegates on Tuesday to Obama's 593, leaving her with an 872-793 edge (43 percent of the way to the nomination) in a race designed in such a way where it's hard to make up big ground.
(The Obama campaign puts the delegate count at plus-9 for the night -- campaign manager David Plouffe on Wednesday morning declared it a "Super Tuesday victory over Senator Clinton in the closest thing we have to a national primary." Here's a debate that may not be sorted out by the time the next round of states vote.)
On the GOP side, ABC logs it as McCain picking up 468 new delegates, to Romney's 145 and Huckabee's 132. McCain's almost halfway home with a 561-222-172 overall delegate edge, with Kansas and Louisiana on deck for Saturday. (First sign of McCain's confidence: Is his trip to Germany still on? "It's always been conditional," adviser Mark Salter tells The Boston Globe.)
The Democrats traded victories in all corners of the country, with voters (again) mixing their messages. It was as close to a tie as you could imagine -- roughly 35,000 votes (less than 1 percent of the 14 million cast) separating the two remaining candidates.
"It was a night of drama as millions of Democrats cleaved sharply between two candidates offering them a historic first," Patrick Healy writes in The New York Times.
"Yet it was also a night when neither Mr. Obama nor Mrs. Clinton could decisively lay claim -- or even secure an edge -- to the nomination, assuring an electoral fight that will unfold for weeks to come."
Obama flashed his red-state appeal, but Clinton kept her edge among women and Latino voters -- most noticeably in California. "Obama won 12 of 22 states -- but not California, the day's most coveted prize. Clinton's victory there was powered by overwhelming support from Latinos, who made up nearly 30% of California voters," Mark Z. Barabak writes in the Los Angeles Times.
"The vote Tuesday showed Obama broadening his coalition while Clinton continued to show strength among Latinos and among voters worried about the economy."
Per ABC polling director Gary Langer, Democrats "put into even sharper relief the divisions that have gripped the party since Obama established his credentials by winning Iowa. Clinton continued to do well among her core constituencies -- women, Hispanics, and the less affluent -- while Obama consistently beat her among his core groups: blacks, the young and among more affluent, better educated voters."
"The calendar now favors Obama, whose strength among blacks and upscale, educated voters gives him the edge in states holding contests this month. He also has a cash advantage after raising more than twice as much as Clinton in January," AP's Ron Fournier writes.
"So why worry? Despite Obama's successes so far, it's hard to argue with Bill Clinton that it's a 'roll of the dice' to vote for a freshman senator less than four years removed from the Illinois legislature. Obama still has much to prove. The potential for setbacks and mistakes is high."
Both candidates have advantages in the long slog that's coming. And it was with one eye on Obama's financial edge that Clinton chose Tuesday to call for Obama to meet her in weekly debates, per the New York Daily News' Michael Saul and Helen Kennedy.
Perhaps most importantly, Clinton finally found a way to change the campaign storyline, after a dismal 10-day stretch. Salon.com's Rebecca Traister: "The over-juiced excitement about an impending Obama revolution gave the Clinton people just the jolt of unexpected joy they needed, and an opportunity for their candidate to appear not simply as a competitor in an uncomfortably tight race, but as a predicted loser who -- sleekly, nimbly, capably, presidentially! -- again had dodged a charismatic young bullet from Chicago."
"In the face of Obama's apparent surge in recent weeks," the Chicago Tribune's Mark Silva writes, "Clinton's claim to the coastal anchors of the Super Tuesday contest -- California and New York -- will add new impetus to her campaign heading into the primary elections still to come."
Obama may yet win the Super Tuesday delegate count, but the expectations game is cruel: "Over the past two weeks, support for Obama had been growing in both national and individual state surveys," HuffingtonPost's Tom Edsall writes.
"Obama did well on Tuesday, by any standard, but he did not achieve the kind of decisive victory that his top aides had been privately hoping for, if not counting on."
Yet another reason that this is going to go on for a while: Obama "is expected to do well in this weekend's caucuses in Washington and Nebraska and sweep next Tuesday's Beltway cluster of Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, which have a large number of upscale Democrats and African-Americans. And he goes forward with a growing financial advantage," Time's Jay Newton-Small and Karen Tumulty write.
"But in early March, when Ohio and Texas hold their primaries, Clinton is counting on recouping whatever ground she loses over the next few weeks."
On the GOP side, McCain is enshrined as the frontrunner (he even dropped his superstitions long enough to embrace the tag in his victory speech) -- but his opponents sure got a large share of votes considering. And Rush Limbaugh and company are just warming up.
"His inability to win in more than half of the states voting yesterday complicated his hopes of rallying the party behind his candidacy," Michael Shear and Peter Baker write in The Washington Post.
"Even if he can ultimately dispatch Romney and Huckabee in the coming weeks, McCain still has a difficult task persuading core Republican voters to stand with him."
"McCain's victory celebration was tempered a bit by warning signs that he has yet to win over Republican partisans and the party's most conservative voters -- many of whom remain suspicious of his maverick past on such issues as taxes and immigration," USA Today's Susan Page writes.
"And he could face a bitter endgame with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney as conservative critics scramble to deny the Arizona senator the presidential nomination."
Might McCain some day regret handing West Virginia's state convention to Huckabee? How many more political lives does this man get before he becomes, you know, dangerous?
"Mr. Huckabee's relatively strong showing was both a blessing and a curse for Mr. McCain, though perhaps more of a blessing," Adam Nagourney writes in The New York Times.
"It injected a small note of uncertainty into the Republican race, and potentially delayed the day when Mr. McCain would have the stage to himself. But Mr. Huckabee appeared to drain votes primarily away from Mr. Romney, contributing to his overall weak showing on this night."
"We're still in this thing," Huckabee said during ABC's Super Tuesday special, and indeed he is: "Huckabee is now trying to flip the argument that he's the one who should drop out," ABC's Jake Tapper reports.
"And he did so with a message that tweaked the institutional support and millions of dollars enjoyed by Romney, speaking with the Biblical flourishes that the Baptist minister often adds to his speeches."
As for how he plans to approach his battle with McCain, he dropped this (unsurprising) hint on ABC's "Good Morning America" on Wednesday: "Both of us genuinely want to see the whole political process elevated to a more civil level of discourse," Huckabee said. "Yes there are differences between us, but we can show those differences without trying to go after each other in a demolition derby."
(Romney, on the other hand, is invited into the ring: "He's changed his view on whining, from no whining to OK for whining," Huckabee said on "GMA," referring to Romney's complaints about how Huckabee won West Virginia with the help of McCain supporters. "Look, he lost -- get over it, deal with it, life goes on.")
Next key question: Is Huckabee primed to be the (next) choice of the conservative voices who loathe McCain? Or do Limbaugh/Hannity/Ingraham stick with Romney?
McCain seeks to clear his next conservative hurdle on Thursday, Time's Jay Carney writes. "The real test of the gulf between McCain and conservatives -- and his ability to bridge it -- comes Thursday at the annual Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) conference in Washington," Carney writes.
"For many, it will be enough if he wins the nomination and promises to do the right thing on the war, judges, taxes and spending. For others, it will take longer. Maybe forever."
The National Review's Byron York heard McCain (re-)starting his outreach on Tuesday: "McCain's Super Tuesday speech wasn't really about Super Tuesday. The heart of it wasn't about his wins in New York and California and Missouri and Illinois and New Jersey and Arizona and Connecticut and Oklahoma and Delaware. Rather, it was a message to those conservatives who are currently waging open war on McCain, arguing that he will never be acceptable to the base of the Republican party."
As for Romney -- might he view his prospects with the cool detachment only a consultant can bring? He capped a day that started with an insult delivered to Bob Dole (wonder how that plays in Kansas) with a deeply disappointing night that saw him win scant victories beyond states he can plausibly call home.
"He celebrated victories Tuesday in his home state of Massachusetts, Utah and five caucus states. But he was pummeled elsewhere on a day he had hoped to prove his presidential campaign wasn't doomed," the AP's Glen Johnson writes.
"Nonetheless, Romney vowed to keep up his fight, casting it as a battle to save the future of the nation."
Said Romney: "One thing is clear: this campaign is going forward." (Just not, necessarily, with Romney a meaningful part of it.)
(Lead of the day -- keeping in mind that Mormons don't gamble: "Betting against Mitt Romney in Utah was something akin to betting the mortgage against the Harlem Globetrotters," Robert Gehrke writes in the Salt Lake Tribune.)
Huckabee's latest rise means Romney is still denied the one-on-one his campaign so badly wants/needs.
"As an example of the Romney campaign's hurriedly revised calculations, aides had begun discussing an unlikely strategy that relies on delegates who are pledged to other candidates but who are not technically bound to them," Michael Luo and Adam Nossiter write in The New York Times.
"Under that plan, the advisers envision that conservative fears continue to work against Mr. McCain, buying time and fueling a series of big victories for Mr. Romney."
Until that happens -- details like this will tell the campaign's story. "The former Massachusetts governor has spent $1.16 million per delegate, a rate that would cost him $1.33 billion to win the nomination," Jonathan Weisman reports in The Washington Post.
McCain was the clear winner -- and his hometown newspaper is already handicapping the general election. The headline on Dan Nowicki's Arizona Republic story: "Clinton or Obama? For McCain, vastly different challenges."
ABC hasn't called Missouri yet -- despite that whoops of a press release from the Clinton campaign Tuesday night that declared Clinton to have "won this important toss-up state."
They're still counting votes in New Mexico: "Fewer than 120 votes separated Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in New Mexico's Democratic presidential caucus early this morning and the race will be decided by thousands of provisional ballots being tallied beginning today," Jeff Jones and Leslie Linthicum write in the Albuquerque Journal.
Not a great night for Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas: Ten whole delegates to add to his column (at least they'll be well-fed at the convention, right?). "The Republican party's Super Tuesday survey of 21 states could be more a time for soul searching than celebrating for the scrappy, insurgent presidential campaign of Texas Rep. Ron Paul," ABC's Z. Byron Wolf writes.
"Here, for what it's worth, is the writing on the wall: The blimp supporters inflated in his honor -- and floated around the South for over a month -- is back on the ground in North Carolina after contributions dried up," Wolf reports.
"There is also no celebration planned for [Tuesday], just a small dinner for staff in the Washington, D.C. . . . The next thing on Paul's calendar after the Super Tuesday contests is scheduled for Sunday: a rally in his hometown of Lake Jackson, Texas, where Paul is running for reelection to the House of Representatives concurrently with his White House bid."
Here's a new one for the annals of Chicago politics: "Chicago election officials Tuesday afternoon were trying to unravel the mystery of the incredible invisible ink," the Chicago Tribune's David Kidwell reports.
It appears that poll workers just spread some very faulty (but sort of funny) information: "Election officials just smirked, shook their heads in disbelief and called it the most bizarre election snafu in recent memory."
"I am not a dumb person." -- Chicago voter Amy Carlton, after casting her ballot with a stylus she mistakenly believed to be a pen that cast her ballot in invisible ink.
"We're not playing it anymore." -- McCain campaign statement, to The Washington Post, after John Mellencamp's publicist reminded McCain that the singer "identifies very strongly with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party."
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