(CBS) After amassing a huge delegate lead in 21 Super Tuesday contests, John McCain is the new face of the Republican Party. Despite loud and sometimes bitter opposition from some conservative corners, the Arizona senator has edged ever closer to winning his party’s presidential nomination.
Both Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee pledged to fight on. But the sheer delegate deficit each must now erase to overtake McCain will make it harder by the day for them to have a realistic chance.
Charting a path to the nomination for either candidate at this point is challenging, at best. Some southern or quasi-southern states remain targets for Huckabee -- states like Virginia, Kentucky and Mississippi. For Romney, who is out of home states to run in, the obvious targets are even less clear. But big states like Ohio and Texas would surely be on the list. What Romney does have is the money to keep running.
Big wins will be harder to come by now because just two pure winner-take-all contests remain - Virginia and the District of Columbia. The remaining states mostly allocate their delegates by congressional district winners, meaning it will be harder to overcome McCain’s delegate lead. And over half the delegates headed to the national convention have been selected already.
“Winning states is important, but it's really about delegates,” said Michigan Congressman Peter Hoekstra, a Romney backer. “Romney has to win enough delegates to get a reasonable number of people to look at him." True, but the bigger question is whether he can possibly cobble together enough to win.
Huckabee now looks very much like a regional candidate. He has not won outside of the South since Iowa and showed little strength in the Midwest, Northeast and West on Super Tuesday, despite winning five states.
Romney has proven he can win his various home states - Massachusetts, Utah and, earlier, Michigan. - but little else. What Romney did that Huckabee did not was demonstrate considerable strength nationwide, from Georgia to Colorado and points in-between.
Each will have something to hang on to after this day, Romney a likely second-place in the delegate count, Huckabee some statewide wins.
In the end, Romney has been stymied by better-known, more able candidates. He may also be the victim of a serious misunderstanding about what conservatism means today. Romney has sought to cast the race as being about who is more conservative, amplifying the mantra started by angry talk-show hosts protesting that McCain was not one of them.
But Romney seems to have missed his own stump speech in which he frequently talks about the three legs of the conservative coalition - economic, national security and social issues.
Among Republican primary voters nationwide voting on Super Tuesday, McCain won among those who cited the economy as their biggest concern, even as they thought Romney the best candidate to deal with it, according to CBS News exit polls. Whether those voters were conservative or not, they are speaking for the Republican Party.
McCain also won among those who cited national security as their top concern but finished third among those seeking a candidate who shares their values. In other words, McCain won two of the three legs of conservatism. Most importantly, McCain won the delegate rich (and winner-take-all) states giving him a big leg up on getting to the 1,191 needed to lock up the nomination.
McCain is for sure the choice of moderate and independent-minded Republican voters. There is also some evidence that he’s not the overwhelming choice among them.
Thirty-seven percent of primary voters on Super Tuesday called themselves pro-choice but just 51 percent of those voters chose McCain. And on immigration, one of the most contentious issues in this election, 54 percent said they oppose the deportation of illegal immigrants and just 46 percent of them voted for McCain. But McCain did not win traditional Republican states in the south or west, carrying more Democratic-friendly territory in the northeast as well as California.
The road to eventual victory may be daunting for Romney and Huckabee but the path to reconciliation within the party itself may prove more so. The rancorous debate that has erupted in recent days between Romney and Rush Limbaugh on one side attacking McCain and Huckabee on the other will need time to heal.
Limbaugh isn’t sounding optimistic about a coming-together anytime soon. “If down the road you think that the election of Obama, Hillary, or McCain is going to result in very bad things happening to the country,” he said on his radio show yesterday, “Who would you rather get the blame for it?”
Ironically, it’s the Democratic race which might relieve the pressure on Huckabee and Romney to bow out. Nothing would soothe a party with a financial and energy deficit than a head-start on the general election, allowing their nominee to repair the party and begin the fall campaign in earnest.
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