Super Tuesday is the closest thing to a national primary and the outcome of the primaries, caucuses, one state and one district convention will have national implications. The voting in 21 states Feb. 5 could determine whether the race for the Republican nomination is effectively decided or goes on for weeks or even months.
One thousand thirty-eight delegates — just less than half the 1,191 needed to secure the nomination — are at stake in contests from sea to shining sea.
The GOP race is essentially down to Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee runs third in the national polls. Libertarian Republican Texas Rep. Ron Paul is a distant fourth.
A top McCain aide said McCain expects to do well and could rack up wins in enough Super Tuesday states to force Romney from the race or leave him in it only nominally.
McCain is in a strong position in three Eastern winner-take-all states: New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. He is also far out front in the latest polls in another delegate-rich state: Illinois.
A Fight to the Finish
In an slightly in-your-face gesture, the Arizona senator will spend today campaigning on Romney's home turf of Massachusetts, as well as New York and New Jersey.
Romney is counting on states like Massachusetts, Utah and Colorado as his own. Utah's Mormon community, which makes up a large portion of the state's population, is expected to turn out in support of Romney. Romney is also expected to do well in Colorado's Republican caucus in a state where he was the most organized Republican with the most extensive field operation. Moreover, in Western states, mormons are considered more neighbors than a question mark.
Although fading nationally, Huckabee could still win several states: His native Arkansas, Alabama and Georgia seem like his best shot, the latter two being state showdowns between McCain and Huckabee and key tests for the GOP candidates in attracting the party's social conservatives.
Battling for California
The key state Tuesday is California. Polls disagree on whether Romney or McCain is ahead. Add to that the arcane system of awarding delegates by congressional district and anything is possible. Though McCain enters California's Super Tuesday contest with the support of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the state's GOP primary is open only to registered Republicans, making the task all the more challenging for McCain.
With a flair for the dramatic and an eye on the Golden State prize, Romney added a late campaign stop in Long Beach to today's schedule. McCain countered by appending to his Tuesday schedule a quick stop for an airport rally in San Diego en route from New York to Phoenix.
McCain advisers deny the California stop means they're worried about a Romney resurgence there.
If Romney can do well in California — take the state's popular vote and/or win the lion's share of delegates — and grab a handful of other states, he may be sufficiently encouraged to battle on.
Sunday's War of Words
Huckabee remaining in the race is an obstacle for Romney. The conventional wisdom is that Romney would benefit most from his withdrawal.
But when Romney suggested it was time for Huckabee to pull out, Huckabee responded in anger.
Sunday in Georgia, Huckabee told reporters, "If anyone should step aside, maybe Mr. Romney should — after all, he's the one that spent $100 million to have the same market share that I've had for $7 million. I would say that anyone with an MBA from Harvard Business School probably would look at that kind of analysis and say, ya know, his product isn't selling as well as mine is for the amount of money he spent on the market."
In the final push before Super Tuesday, Romney tried repeatedly to question McCain's authenticity as a conservative, repeatedly attacking McCain for co-sponsoring legislation with Democrats: the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform, McCain-Kennedy immigration bill and McCain-Lieberman bill to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
McCain fired back, trying to portray Romney as a flip-flopper whose record as governor included more than $700 million in tax increases on the form of "fees."
The Arizona senator also pressed Romney for once saying, in March 2007, that he favored setting "timetables and benchmarks" for progress in Iraq. McCain asserts that this was coded language for wanting to withdraw.
"In those days, timetable meant withdraw," McCain said in an interview.
"That was the buzzword used by the Democrats, used by Republicans who wanted to leave [Iraq]. And then he … [talked about] a kind of a secret proposal that said 'We're not going to tell the enemy when we are gone.' Meaning that somehow that meant plans for leaving. It was a defining moment and the buzzword for 'withdraw' was quote 'timetables.' The right answer to that question that he should have said is 'No. No timetables. Success.'"
Romney denies McCain's interpretation, calling his Republican rival's line of attack a "dirty trick."
Final Efforts for Conservative Cred
McCain also stepped up his efforts to mollify conservative Republicans, some of whom view him with considerable suspicion because of his legislative alliances and for voting against the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts.
This week, both McCain and Romney are scheduled to address the Conservative Political Action Conference's annual gathering Washington, D.C.
It is an opportunity for McCain to make the case for his conservative credentials. He skipped the conference last year.
The latest ABC News-Washington Post shows McCain improving his standing with conservative voters.
He was favored by 15 percent in December. That number grew to 25 percent in January and 37 percent heading into Super Tuesday.