WASHINGTON &

John McCain rolled to victory in big-state primaries across the nation Tuesday, but rivals Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney notched enough wins to keep the race for the Republican nomination alive.




With 21 GOP contests at stake, McCain won in California, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma and Arizona, his home state.




Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor who has appealed above all to white evangelicals, beat expectations across a large stretch of the Bible Belt. He won Alabama, West Virginia and delegate-rich Georgia and Tennessee &

big trophies for a man who long ranked as an afterthought in the race for the White House.




Super Tuesday proved a disappointment, however, for Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts. He took his home state, but his other victories were in the relatively small states of Utah &

where he was buoyed by fellow Mormons &

Minnesota, Montana, Colorado and North Dakota.




McCain was counting on winning enough delegates Tuesday to establish himself firmly as the presumptive nominee. In Phoenix, he took to the stage at the Arizona Biltmore with the "Rocky" anthem playing and told cheering supporters he was glad to give up the role of underdog.




"I think we must get used to the idea that we are the Republican Party front-runner," he told the crowd.




"Mac is back!" his supporters hollered.




At his election-night party in Boston, Romney told supporters that he would stay in the race no matter the final delegate tally after Super Tuesday.




"I think there's some people who thought it was all going to be done tonight," he told the crowd before promising: "We're going to go all the way to the convention and we're going to win this thing, and we're going to go to the White House."




Huckabee, like Romney, vowed to keep on fighting for the nomination.




"Tonight we're proving that we're still on our feet," Huckabee told a boisterous crowd in Little Rock, Ark. "And much to the amazement of many, we're getting there, folks."




With 1,023 delegates to the party's summer convention at stake on Tuesday, it was mathematically impossible for McCain to capture the full 1,191 needed to win the nomination. But by late Tuesday evening, McCain had pulled far ahead with 522 delegates, to 223 for Romney and 142 for Huckabee, according to The Associated Press.




Among the important contests coming up are Virginia and Maryland next Tuesday, Wisconsin and Washington a week later, and Ohio and Texas on March 4.




For Romney, who has portrayed himself as a more conservative alternative to McCain, the coast-to-coast voting proved to be a missed opportunity to stop McCain's momentum. A key obstacle for Romney appeared to be Huckabee. Exit polls conducted for television networks and The Associated Press found that Romney had an advantage with the party's most conservative voters, notably those who see illegal immigration as the top issue facing America. But Huckabee ran strong among white evangelicals, a major conservative bloc.




"The two of them are splitting the conservative vote, and as long as they continue to do so, John McCain can shoot right up the middle," said Republican strategist Dan Schnur, who worked for McCain's presidential campaign in 2000 but has been neutral in the party's 2008 race.




McCain won strong support among moderates. Voters also rated him as best qualified to be commander in chief. Also favoring McCain were voters looking for experience and strong leadership skills, according to the exit poll of 8,983 GOP voters in 16 states.




The voting capped a weeklong scramble around the country by McCain, Romney and Huckabee, following McCain's Jan. 29 victory in the Florida primary.




The Arizona senator spent much of his time in the Northeast, California and other states with many moderate Republican voters. At most stops, he emphasized national security, vowing to protect the country from Islamic terrorists. Campaigning in San Diego with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Tuesday morning, he also mentioned steps he has taken in the Senate to fight global warming.




"We're going to give the people of California and our children and grandchildren a cleaner planet," he told supporters at a hangar rally at the San Diego airport as planes roared overhead.




Schwarzenegger was one of many Republican luminaries who have endorsed McCain in recent weeks as he has moved to unite the party behind his candidacy. Others include former govs. Pete Wilson and George Deukmejian of California and George Pataki of New York. McCain campaigned Tuesday morning with former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, his erstwhile rival, at Rockefeller Center in Manhattan.




The voting Tuesday came amid polls showing that Republicans are less satisfied than Democrats with their field of candidates.




"I have never been as uninspired to go to the polls as I feel today, because the front-runners on both sides seem like two sides of the same coin," said Jason Clabaugh, 40, a conservative businessman who cast his ballot for Romney in Cobb County, Ga.




To Carol Busby, 70, another Cobb County voter, Huckabee was most appealing. But she opted for McCain, because he seemed to stand the best chance of defeating Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton or Barack Obama in the general election.




"He's the only one who I think can win on the Republican side," she said.




(Begin optional trim)




The day's first victory went to Huckabee, who won a vote of 1,133 Republicans at the state party convention in West Virginia. That came as a blow to Romney, who had taken a red-eye from Long Beach to Charleston, W.Va., to appeal for their support Tuesday morning. He told the crowd that he had fought in Massachusetts against abortion, gay marriage and gun control.




"Every action I took was to protect life, protect family, protect marriage &

by the way, also to protect 2nd Amendment rights," Romney said.




Romney drew the biggest share of votes on the first ballot but fell short of the majority. On the second ballot, McCain's supporters defected to Huckabee, who leapfrogged past Romney to win with 51.5 percent of the vote.




"Unfortunately," Romney campaign manager Beth Myers said, "this is what Sen. McCain's inside Washington ways look like: He cut a backroom deal with the tax-and-spend candidate he thought could best stop Gov. Romney's campaign of conservative change."




For weeks, Romney has been casting McCain as a Washington insider, despite the senator's maverick reputation.




On Tuesday, a Romney attack backfired when he shrugged off an effort by former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole to get talk-radio personality Rush Limbaugh to stop challenging McCain's conservative credentials. "Well, it's probably the last person I would have wanted to have write a letter for me," Romney told Fox News.




After McCain demanded an apology, Romney backtracked , calling Dole "a war hero, a fine man and a great leader of our party." Still, Romney got an election-day lift from Focus on the Family founder James C. Dobson, who made scathing remarks about McCain on a radio show. "I am convinced Sen. McCain is not a conservative," Dobson told listeners, "and in fact, has gone out of his way to stick his thumb in the eyes of those who are."He also said McCain had "a legendary temper and often uses foul and obscene language."




(End optional trim)




Times staff writers Seema Mehta in Boston, Maeve Reston in Phoenix, Richard Fausset in Atlanta and Stuart Silverstein in Los Angeles contributed to this report.