WASHINGTON — Arizona Sen. John McCain swept to victories from coast to coast Tuesday, amassing delegates in what could be a Super Tuesday march toward the Republican presidential nomination.
McCain took the big-state bookends of California and New York and won a swath of other states across the country: Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey and Oklahoma, seizing most of their delegates.
Many of the states, including New York, were winner-take-all bonanzas that added to his growing lead and the sense that he could fast become unstoppable.
Rival Mitt Romney jumped in with victories in his home state of Massachusetts — where he was a one-term governor — and in Utah, home to his Mormon faith. He added wins across the Plains in Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana and Colorado.
But he lost battleground contests, and perhaps the mantle of chief challenger, to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Romney was outmaneuvered in an old-fashioned state convention, losing unexpectedly to Huckabee in West Virginia.
Huckabee also took Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and his home state of Arkansas.
The contests were part of an unprecedented coast-to-coast showdown that McCain said clearly established him as the man to beat for the Republican nomination.
"We've won some of the biggest states in the country," McCain told supporters in Phoenix. "We've won primaries in the West, the South, the Midwest and the Northeast. ...We are the Republican Party front-runner for the nomination."
His two chief rivals fought for the right to emerge as the anti-McCain, hoping to rally conservatives looking for a viable alternative.
Fresh from wins in the South, Huckabee said Tuesday evening that he, not Romney, would lead the anti-McCain forces into the weeks ahead.
"A lot of people have been trying to say this is a two-man race. Well, you know what, it is. And we're in it," he said to cheering supporters in Little Rock, Ark.
"We're still on our feet, and much to the amazement of many, we're getting there."
Romney vowed to press on.
"This campaign's going on," he told cheering supporters in Boston. "There's some people who thought it was all going to be done tonight. But it's not all done tonight. We're going to keep on battling. We're going to go all the way to the convention."
Influential talk-radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity spent Tuesday again berating McCain as a liberal and talking up Romney. Social conservative James Dobson, the head of the Colorado-based group Focus on the Family, announced Tuesday that he wouldn't vote for McCain even if he won the nomination — but he did not back Romney.
"Senator McCain is not a conservative and, in fact, has gone out of his way to stick his thumb in the eyes of those who are," Dobson said.�
Across the Super Tuesday landscape, McCain and Romney split Republican party regulars, while McCain had a big edge among independents, according to exit polls.
McCain had the edge among those who called themselves somewhat conservative, while Romney had the edge among those calling themselves very conservative.
None had a clear advantage among evangelical Christians, who split three ways.
McCain proclaimed himself the true conservative in the race, and he criticized Romney as the liberal.
Speaking to reluctant conservatives, he also said he'd be the party's best chance to win the White House.
"I defeat (Hillary) Clinton and (Barack) Obama in a general election matchup," he said. "I have the ability to attract independents."
He even predicted that he'd win California in the fall, which hasn't gone for a Republican since the elder George Bush won it in 1988.
"I will win California," McCain said. "I will campaign in California. California is a vital state for any Republican who wants to be president of the United States, and you'll be seeing a lot of me in California as the nominee of the Republican Party. We will not write off the state of California."
In one of the day's more interesting turns, McCain forces worked a state convention in West Virginia to deny an early win for Romney, helping deliver the state and its 18 delegates instead to Huckabee.
Romney led on the first ballot, with Huckabee in second and McCain in third. Too far back to win, the McCain camp threw its support to Huckabee and gave him enough votes to win on a second ballot.
Romney supporters called it a dirty trick.
"This is what Senator McCain's inside-Washington ways look like: He cut a backroom deal with the tax-and-spend candidate he thought could best stop Governor Romney's campaign of conservative change," said Romney campaign manager Beth Myers.
Republicans awarded 1,009 delegates in 21 states Tuesday, 42 percent of the total that will select the party's nominee at the Republican National Convention in the summer.
McCain couldn't secure the nomination Tuesday even if he'd won every one of the delegates. He started the day with 93, Romney had 77 and Huckabee had 58.
But winning a sizable majority would give him a big lead in delegates and undeniable momentum heading into the rest of the contests.