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McCain claims a Super Tuesday surge

He's amassed twice the delegates of rival Romney. But the GOP's conservative wing remains resistant to his campaign.

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Exit poll data from Tuesday showed that McCain continued to do well among moderates and voters who value experience as the top candidate quality. He also won a plurality of self-identified Republicans, a feat he had not pulled off in the previous nominating contests.

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In California, which McCain won handily despite polls showing a late surge by Romney, the senator's liberal position on immigration appeared to help him. He won among voters who favor a path to citizenship and those who favor a temporary worker program, which together represented more than 50 percent of GOP voters in California, but lost to Romney among the 38 percent who favor deportation.

McCain also fared well among Latino Republicans in California – 14 percent of the GOP electorate there, winning a 35 percent plurality of them. He was also the top vote-getter among white GOP Californians (40 percent) and Asians (63 percent).

Winning California was important to McCain; a Romney victory there would have given him bragging rights and greater claim to legitimacy for staying in the race. But California was not a winner-take-all state, in terms of delegate allocation. In the all-important delegate count, McCain won most of the winner-take-all states – New York, New Jersey, Arizona, Missouri, Connecticut, Oklahoma, and Delaware.

According to Associated Press estimates, which were not complete, McCain has amassed 613 of the 1,191 delegates needed to secure the GOP nomination. Romney has 269, Huckabee has 190, and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas has 16.

Romney was reported set to have "frank discussions" with his staff on Wednesday about the future of his campaign, even as he promised his supporters Tuesday night that he would fight on to the party convention. Some analysts say Romney wants to preserve the option of running in 2012, if a Democrat wins in November. If he continues to pour his own money into his 2008 campaign beyond the point of any reasonable expectation of victory, he could damage his standing in the party.

But the biggest question after Super Tuesday was how or if McCain and his conservative elite antagonists, such as talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh, can come to some kind of truce over McCain's ascendancy. Tuesday afternoon, evangelical leader James Dobson released a statement announcing that he would sit out the election if McCain is nominated. If large numbers of evangelicals follow suit, that could doom McCain.

In his victory speech to supporters Tuesday night, McCain aimed for party unity.

"I am as confident tonight as I have ever been that we can succeed in November by uniting our party in our determination to keep our country safe, proud, prosperous, and free and by again making a persuasive case to independents, and to those enlightened members of the other party, that the great Ronald Reagan claimed for our party," he said.

Analysts suggest that McCain's best argument to his GOP critics is electability.

"What he has to do is demonstrate that he can run a campaign that can beat either Obama or Clinton," says Bruce Merrill, a political pollster at Arizona State University in Tempe. "That's the only way to get conservatives to come over to him."