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For Super Tuesday, McCain's edge is substantial

McCain leads by 19 points nationally, but Romney could benefit from anti-McCain votes.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 5, 2008

Sen. John McCain stopped Monday in Massachusetts.

Charles Krupa/AP

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For the past year, pundits have been warning: Don't pay attention to the national polls. They are more a gauge of name recognition than considered choices by voters. Remember Rudolph Giuliani, the "likely Republican nominee?"

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Now that the biggest Super Tuesday in US history has arrived, with almost two dozen states holding primaries or caucuses, the national polls are truly meaningful, analysts say. Voters are engaged across the country, not just in the few states that had early nominating contests. And Republicans appear set to all but anoint Sen. John McCain of Arizona as their choice for November.

The latest average of national polls shows Senator McCain towering over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney by 19 points – 43 percent to 24 percent, with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee at 18 percent and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas at 6.

"If past Super Tuesdays are any indication, it's going to be very difficult for Romney to dig himself out of the hole he's in at the moment," says William Mayer, a political scientist at Northeastern University in Boston.

Romney comeback still possible

Still, given the rules of delegate allocation, Mr. Romney could rack up a decent number of delegates for the Republican convention in September, especially in states that award delegates by congressional district, such as California. Romney could also do well in some of the smaller states, most of which are holding caucuses, a format that has benefited Romney's highly organized campaign. And both Missouri, a winner-take-all state, and Tennessee are within reach for Romney.

"Unless [McCain] sweeps the table on Tuesday, Romney's in a position to claim at least a partial victory and keep going forward," says Dan Schnur, who was McCain's communications director in the 2000 presidential race and is now unaffiliated with any presidential candidate.

"If Romney wins six, seven, eight states out of the 21 that are voting, he can make a case that there's a reason to keep going forward."

Romney could, in that case, opt to dip further into his personal fortune and soldier on in the Feb. 12 primaries and beyond. But the hard truth for the former governor is that, with Mr. Huckabee still in the race, his chances are slim. Huckabee, a former Baptist minister, is siphoning away evangelical votes from Romney.

With the anti-McCain vote divided, the Arizonan – who inspires considerable animosity among some conservatives over his positions on campaign finance, immigration, and global warming – will be tough to beat.

A divided evangelical vote

The future of the evangelical vote, an important constituency of the Republican Party, remains in flux, analysts say. But they note that it would be a mistake to assume that all the Huckabee votes would be going for Romney, if Huckabee weren't in the race. In the South Carolina primary on Jan. 19, the exit poll showed that 60 percent of GOP voters self-identified as "born-again or evangelical Christian," and of those, 43 percent went for Huckabee, 27 percent for McCain, and 11 percent for Romney.