By MICHAEL R. BLOOD
LOS ANGELES—Starved for campaign cash, John McCain never ran a TV commercial in California, the surest way to reach voters in the vast state. He didn’t send a piece of mail to voters in a season when mailboxes are stuffed with political advertising.Instead, volunteers dialed up voters and knocked on doors. And McCain went a long way on his name.
The Arizona senator crushed Mitt Romney in the nation’s most populous state on Super Tuesday, cementing his national front-runner status and positioning himself to win most, if not all, of the state’s 170 delegates.
With 92 percent of precincts reporting, McCain had 42 percent of the vote to Romney’s 34 percent. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee trailed with 11 percent.
Just months ago, McCain was all but forgotten in the race after his campaign ran out of money and momentum in the summer. But he regained his footing with wins in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, propelling him to a series of wins Tuesday from coast to coast.
He clearly benefited when Rudy Giuliani’s campaign collapsed last week, ending the competition over party moderates.
“McCain is a household name. Romney’s problem was most Californians don’t know who the heck he is,” said Republican analyst Allan Hoffenblum. With the tight primary schedule, Romney “spent all his time and early money in Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan and Florida. There was not enough time for him to create a separate image here in California.”
After overcoming his troubles last year, McCain came to California with built-in advantages: He’s from neighboring Arizona; as a war hero, he has natural appeal with California’s many veterans and active-duty personnel; and he won the endorsement of popular Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who’s been campaigning for him across the state.
A survey of voters leaving polling places found McCain was the overwhelming choice of GOP moderates and those looking for decisive leadership in a time of war. Romney has been fighting to win over conservatives who dominate California’s primary, and the exit poll found he was the favorite of “very conservative” voters as well as those who identified illegal immigration as the nation’s top issue.
Signs of a tightening race sent both candidates hurrying back to California this week, and Romney spent lavishly on TV advertising in hopes of stalling his rival’s momentum.
For the first time this year, California Republicans divvied up delegates based on the winner in each of the state’s 53 congressional districts. McCain soundly defeated his rival from San Diego to the Napa Valley. Fresno County was one place the outcome look inconclusive, according to unofficial returns.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and wealthy businessman, was unbowed by his Super Tuesday showing.
“We’re going to keep on battling,” he said in Boston.
To no surprise, illegal immigration was a top issue for many California Republicans.
Exit polls found Romney was favored by those who want illegal workers deported and some conservatives saw McCain as the face of liberal immigration policy. But the Arizona senator also won votes for proposing a pathway to citizenship for illegal workers.
Immigration reform “is really the thing that made me vote for him,” said Juan Carlos, 32, a Los Angeles technology consultant who moved to the U.S. from Mexico 15 years ago.
In the closing days of the campaign, McCain aired a tough-talk radio ad on illegal immigration, a sign that he was vulnerable on the issue. “I’ve listened and learned,” he said in the ad. “I’ll hire new border guards, build a fence.”
Another McCain voter, a Sacramento-area Target retail manager Mike Ronnebeck, 45, said he admired the senator because “he works across boundaries with Republicans and Democrats.”
California had long been a forgotten state in the presidential election, a place where candidates came mostly to collect checks in the fundraising centers of Hollywood and Silicon Valley. But this year the state has seen new clout and visibility since moving its primary to Super Tuesday from its traditional June berth.