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."