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With no losers, the fight goes on

Times Staff Writers

Not long ago, political strategists viewed Super Tuesday as a day that would likely crown the Republican and Democratic presidential nominees, a 24-state extravaganza that would bring the long primary campaign to an orderly conclusion.

They were wrong. Instead of producing nominees, Tuesday’s voting revealed the fault lines for a continuing fight within each party.

The crazy quilt of primary and caucus results gave Republicans a clear front-runner in Sen. John McCain, but no sign that his rivals, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, would drop out soon and no sign of peace among the party’s divided factions.

Democrats who once thought their race would wrap up early instead face a potentially long duel between Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, with votes divided not by ideology but, in many states, by race and ethnic group.

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Clinton and Obama divided the nation almost down the middle, with Clinton winning at least eight states, including giants California and New York. Obama won at least 12 states, including Illinois and Georgia. The close result guaranteed days of uncertainty over the delegate count, followed by weeks more of renewed campaigning.

With the two candidates separated by only modest policy differences, Tuesday’s results illuminated divisions of what scholars call “identity politics.” Latinos turned out in large numbers and mostly supported Clinton; African American voters turned out too and voted overwhelmingly for Obama; and white voters divided, giving pluralities to Clinton in some states, to Obama in others.

McCain advanced significantly toward his party’s nomination, winning nine states, including delegate-rich California, New York and Illinois. But exit polls showed that he had still not won the hearts of the party’s most loyal conservatives, who divided most of their votes between Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, and Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas. That left the GOP closer to making McCain its nominee but no closer to joining ranks behind him.

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.

For Democrats, Tuesday’s results showed both candidates strengthening their natural bases of support, with Clinton exerting dominance among Latinos and Obama beginning to show progress among white voters.

In fact, Obama proved, just as he did in last month’s Iowa caucuses, that many whites will vote for a black candidate.

After winning just a quarter of the white vote in South Carolina’s heavily black primary last month, Obama needed to show that his support spanned the races. On Tuesday, he made that point decisively, beating Clinton in states with tiny minority populations: Connecticut, Minnesota, Utah, North Dakota, Alaska and Idaho. He won nearly half of white voters in California.

Those numbers could help Obama’s campaign convince potential donors and voters in future contests in the coming weeks that he can go the distance, particularly with important primaries coming up in Washington state, Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

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For Clinton, Tuesday brought a clear consolidation of her strength among Latinos, a bloc she dominated in California. But exit polls showed Obama narrowing the gap in Arizona, where he won about 4 in 10 Latinos, and his victory in the Colorado caucuses suggests he mounted a successful courtship of Latinos in key areas of that state as well.

There were, however, some danger signs for Obama.

In Oklahoma, for example, an overwhelmingly white state won easily by Clinton, CNN exit polls showed that Obama won just 28% of whites. The result was similar in Tennessee, another so-called red state that Obama strategists have pointed to as a general election battleground should the Illinois senator win the nomination.

And although his campaign devoted a great deal of time and money courting Latinos in California, it seems he did not make much progress, losing the state’s Latinos across all age groups.

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Strengthening a Latino-black coalition could be crucial in a big upcoming primary in early March -- in Texas -- that many strategists now believe could be decisive.

Strategists for both Democratic campaigns said Tuesday they were encouraged by the results, but both said they expected the race to continue for weeks if not months as the campaigns scrap for delegates to the nominating convention.

“We’re both prepared for a long, drawn-out affair,” said Obama campaign manager David Plouffe.

The Republicans’ divide was ideological -- and familiar. It was the same division between moderates, most of whom favor McCain, and conservatives, most of whom don’t, that marked the results in earlier primaries from New Hampshire to South Carolina.

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Across the nation, McCain led among Republicans who identified themselves as moderates or liberals, but Romney led among the larger group who called themselves conservatives, according to exit poll results published by the Associated Press.

In California, McCain won only a third of the vote among conservatives, who made up most of the Republican electorate; Romney won a plurality of conservatives’ votes. That result was repeated in most other states; even in Arizona, where McCain won overall, he lost among conservatives.

That suggested that the Arizona senator has not yet won over substantial numbers of his party’s most loyal supporters, despite weeks of effort on his part to show that he is as conservative as his rivals.

“McCain wanted to use Super Tuesday to silence his critics and become the consensus nominee, but he fell a little short,” said Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster. “McCain moved the ball forward, but he didn’t score a touchdown. It’s not a bad showing, but it’s not especially strong.”

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Romney won primaries or caucuses in six states on Tuesday; Huckabee won four.

As a result, Newhouse said, there is no reason for Romney or Huckabee to get out of the race at this point. “They can’t look at these results and say, ‘I’ve had enough, I’m throwing in the towel,’ ” he said.

McCain’s poor showing among conservatives “is a formidable number to overcome,” agreed veteran GOP strategist Eddie Mahe. “If Romney comes close in California, I think the conservatives will push to keep him in. They do not want McCain to be the presumptive nominee. . . . The animosity toward McCain [among conservatives] is very broad and very deep.”

Indeed, even before the polls closed, several conservative spokesmen renewed their criticism of McCain.

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doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com

peter.wallsten@latimes.com

Times staff writers Sarah Wire and Ben DuBose contributed to this report.

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