The Skinny on Fat Tuesday

Call it the most competitive, high-stakes game of Jenga ever, with nothing less than the leadership of our democracy hanging in the balance.

Super Tuesday lived up to some expectations—a highly competitive Democratic race and a strong national showing for John McCain—while injecting more surprises and uncertainty into what promises to be a long and contested affair. As each candidate removed their state-shaped pieces from the leaning tower of available delegates, starting with Mike Huckabee scoring a surprise victory in the West Virginia primary convention with a little politicking help from McCain supporters who threw their weight behind the Arkansas governor to block any Mitt Romney momentum, and ending with the penultimate super-prize of California going to Hillary Clinton in a startlingly lopsided affair; each candidate hoped to yank the essential building blocks of any presidential nomination out from under their opponents.

As neatly diagrammed on CNN's fancy touch-sensitive voting megaboard, which looks like a cross between a monstrous I-Phone Of Democracy and Tom Cruise's Philip K. Dickian Minority Report workstation, Huckabee was the night's happiest winner, chalking up victories in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, West Virginia and his native Arkansas. All night, Huckabee victimized Romney, whose essential support amongst far-right conservatives wanes considerably when Huckabee is in the mix. Romney won much of the West but lost critical contests in Missouri and California and may be forced from the race as a result. Huck's Bible Belt charge, meanwhile, gives him negotiating power with the Republican Party at large and may guarantee him a VP slot on McCain's ticket, now all but within the Arizona senator's reach.

Romney's speech from his headquarters in Boston, given before many of his wins in the West were announced, reeked of both fatalism and ludicrous optimism as he grasped at straws like "the three places where I've lived have voted for us," "it isn't just about which party is going to win in November," and "we knew it's going to be close." A close contest, perhaps, between McCain's two favorite ties, each vying to gleam under the convention spotlights in St. Paul.

McCain's strength across the country, carrying disparate electorates like New York, Illinois, Oklahoma, and California, will do much to mollify the worries of conservative Republicans who may now be willing to accept his unpredictable record under his newfound air of imminent electability. Nobody rallies around a winner like the Republicans.

For the Democrats, the biggest story of the night may be the failure of the Obama wave to find its crest: fresh from South Carolina and every endorsement under the sun, Barack harnessed the early momentum, scoring unexpected wins in Connecticut and Delaware, both considered firewalls in Clinton's northeastern backyard. But he then stalled; Massachusetts stayed in Hillary's column despite key Bay Stater endorsements from the Kennedy clan and John Kerry. In a protracted mid-country battle, both candidates held form through most of the evening, commanding strong margins in their home states, Clinton playing well to traditional Democrats in the South and pro-immigration groups in the West, Obama carrying almost all major city centers and western, caucus-driven contests. As the night drew to a close, it was Obama who had struck first, but Clinton saved her best for last, carrying California on the strength of her support in Latino (66-33) and Asian (73-25) voting communities. Obama did win 13 states and nearly matched Clinton's delegate haul, but by virtue of her strong holding action Clinton likely can take away momentum from a day that many had expected to be the spark of a surging Obama's campaign with truly national support.

Colorado enjoyed its first taste of Super Tuesday importance, with most caucuses reporting record turnouts, particularly among Democrats who ventured out in numbers eight times that seen in 2004 and outnumbered GOP faithful this time around by 2-1. The large urban turnout in particular bodes well for Dems heading towards November, as they seek to overcome the traditionally dominant suburban/rural Republican vote.

CO voters bucked the Denver Post endorsement of HRC and broke with the rest of the Western states with large Latino populations in delivering Obama a crushing victory. Obama's single biggest margin came in San Miguel county, where 385 caucusers gave Obama a 86% stamp of approval. The state also reveled in its short-lived bellweather moment—standing at the vanguard of a late Romney rally in the West—that turned an utterly devastating, humiliating night into a manageable beat-down.

No Super Tuesday would be complete, however, with out a customary awarding of a few special prizes:

The Egg-On-Your Face Award of the evening go to the several media outlets who predicted a Clinton victory in Missouri, only to watch her minimal lead evaporate into a slim Obama steal. Though the delegate counts may not change at all, this election has shown that any victory, great or small, can be spun into something worthwhile. And after all, Missouri is the SHOW ME state, not the C'MON, HAVE A GUESS state.

The America Cares Bonus goes to Hillary and Barack, who both mentioned in their speeches those who had lost their lives in tornadoes in Arkansas and Tennessee. True to form, Hillary mentioned the victims because she cares, and because Arkansas is her state and Tennessee voted for her. Barack mentioned them because he cares, Hillary did it first and he was not going to be the Mean One.

And in the It's Probably Nothing But Maybe Not category, kudos to CNN for choosing "light blue" for Clinton and "dark blue" for Obama, to illustrate the finer points between the two candidates. -- Joe Horton

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