WASHINGTON – Tuesday closed the book on the race for the Republican presidential nomination, with Arizona Sen. John McCain winning four states and the last batch of delegates needed to become his party's standard-bearer in November.
For Democrats, a day that stood to bring similar clarity ended in further indecision.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton reversed an 11-contest losing streak with victories in Ohio, Texas, and Rhode Island, resurrecting her campaign and making a credible case for continuing a difficult fight against Sen. Barack Obama.
Though Senator McCain's triumph had been expected since Super Tuesday a month ago, his sealing of the nomination is a remarkable vindication for a man whose campaign was taken for dead over the summer.
President Bush is expected to endorse McCain at the White House Wednesday, a symbolic step that analysts say will help unite the party and win over conservatives skeptical of the independent-minded senator.
"Now we begin the most important part of our campaign – to make a respectful, determined, and convincing case to the American people that our campaign and my election as president … are in the best interests of the country we love," McCain told supporters Tuesday in Dallas.
For Senator Clinton, the seven weeks until the next major primary, in Pennsylvania on April 22, buy her ample time to raise money, sharpen attacks on her rival, and convince the elected officials and party leaders known as superdelegates that she is still a contender.
Clinton narrowly won the primary in Texas, which saw a record turnout of more than 3.5 million voters. But Senator Obama was ahead early Wednesday in the state's post-primary caucus, which divvies up 67 of the state's 193 pledged delegates.
Clinton would have been hard-pressed to go on without winning at least one of the two big states, analysts said. Her husband, former President Bill Clinton, had set an even higher bar, saying victories were essential in both Texas and Ohio.
"She's back," Linda Fowler, a government professor at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., said of Clinton. "This gives substance to her claim that she wins in populous states like California, and he wins in the little insignificant 'red' states. It just keeps things very confused."
The day offered Clinton a bright spot ahead of another challenging week. Wyoming's Democrats, who caucus on Saturday, vote in the club of red states Obama has dominated. In Mississippi, which votes March 11, more than half the Democratic primary voters are African-American.
Exit polls Tuesday show that nearly 6 in 10 late-deciding voters broke for Clinton, a sign that her increasingly aggressive tactics may be paying off.
Over the past week, she has pressed Obama to answer more questions about his ties to Chicago real-estate developer Tony Rezko, a former fundraiser who went on trial this week on federal corruption charges.
She highlighted reports that an Obama adviser allegedly assured Canadian diplomats that Obama's opposition to NAFTA – the North American Free Trade Agreement that is reviled in Ohio and some other struggling industrial states – was more political tactic than policy position.
And she launched a television ad Feb. 29 featuring sleeping children and asking which candidate voters would rather have answer an emergency phone call at 3 a.m. (Obama is not implicated in the Rezko case, has disputed accounts of his adviser's NAFTA remarks, and has accused Clinton of trying to scare voters with the so-called "red phone" ad.)
"The Clinton campaign believes that not only have they checked Obama's momentum, they've found some themes they can prosecute against him," says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "It will be up to Obama to develop some very credible responses."
Not only did the pillars of her base – white women, older voters, and Hispanics – stay loyal Tuesday, but she appeared to put the brakes on Obama's advances among white men. According to exit polls in Ohio, Rhode Island, and Texas, the candidates were splitting independents, a group that typically has favored Obama.
"You know what they say: As Ohio goes, so goes the nation," Clinton told supporters Tuesday night in Columbus. "Well, this nation is coming back, and so is this campaign."
Her margin of victory in Ohio, as in Rhode Island, was convincing: She took 54 percent of the Ohio vote to Obama's 44 percent, and won 58 percent of the vote in Rhode Island versus Obama's 40 percent. The Texas race was nip and tuck, with Clinton at 51 percent and Obama at 47. Obama won big in Vermont, 60 percent to Clinton's 38 percent.
Clinton made clear she intends to savor the moment, booking appearances Wednesday morning on no fewer than six television networks.
She picked up 115 of the 370 pledged delegates in play Tuesday (but nearly half of the total had not yet been allocated as of early Wednesday), according to the Associated Press tally. Still, she remains behind overall, trailing with 1,391 delegates to Obama's 1,477. A candidate needs 2,025 to win the Democratic nomination, and 611 are up for grabs in the 13 remaining contests.
All eyes now turn to Pennsylvania, where Clinton has the endorsement of Gov. Ed Rendell and is expected to do well with the state's many blue-collar voters.
Even more pivotal, say analysts, are the party's 796 superdelegates, who are not bound by the popular vote in their states and could very well decide the nomination. Obama has gained ground among them in recent weeks, but still trails Clinton 199 to 241.
Speaking to supporters in San Antonio before the Texas results were in, Obama played down the significance of the March 4 contests. "No matter what happens tonight," he said, "we have nearly the same delegate lead as we did this morning, and we are on our way to winning this nomination."