John McCain was well on his way to locking up primary victories in his home state and in states across the country Tuesday on what is certain to be the defining day of the Republican primary campaign.
In early returns, McCain was leading former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney by a substantial margin in Maricopa County, home to two-thirds of the state’s voters. Early statewide returns also showed McCain with a commanding lead.
With a series of wins stretching from coast to coast, the Arizona senator moved into the role of presumptive Republican nominee for the November presidential election.
“We’ve had a strong campaign. Obviously, it’s not over, but this part of it is over,” McCain told reporters in Phoenix where he arrived Tuesday afternoon for a victory party at the Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa.
A standing-room-only crowd of 1,500 supporters and hundreds of reporters from media outlets around the country and world attended his homecoming.
McCain credited his day to attracting conservatives within the Republican Party to come to his side, a task that seemed impossible a few months ago at the onset of McCain’s second presidential campaign. “In recent elections, we have got strong support from the conservative wing of our voters, which is why we have won these primaries,” he said.
Voters came to realize that he was the true conservative candidate, and heart and soul, of the party, he said. Romney, his chief opponent, has a record for tax increases, a big-government approach to health care, and setting a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq, McCain said.
McCain said he will work to unite the party the same way he has campaigned so far. “You win, you meet, you speak, you join together,” he said.
Several high-profile Republicans joined McCain in Phoenix. Among his entourage were Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, plus independent Sen. Joe Lieberman, of Connecticut, the former Democratic vice presidential candidate under Al Gore.
McCain clearly has captured national momentum, Lieberman said.
“He’s the only Republican candidate right now who is showing coast-to-coast strength, and that’s a big key because people recognize that he has the character, the judgment, the experience and the stength to lead America in the years ahead,” he said.
Several dozen Romney supporters who were gathered at the Paradise Valley home of Paul Gilbert, co-chairman of the Arizona campaign, let out cheers when network news channels they were watching still had not called the state for McCain by 8 p.m.
Throughout the evening, there was chatter that exit polls showed Romney running close in the state, particularly in the East Valley and rural areas, where both turnout and support for Romney were running strong.
But early returns told a different story. McCain found support with voters such as golf course architect Gary Panks, 66, who voted in Phoenix. “Certainly national security is extremely important,” Panks said. “It’s also important to stick with the constitutional principles this country was founded on, and fiscal responsibility. That’s why I voted Republican.”