Since his victory in Florida, John McCain has opened up large double-digit leads over Mitt Romney in nearly every national poll for the Republican nomination. With Romney's decisive victory in the Maine caucuses this weekend (his fourth win so far), the two candidates are quite close in the delegate count (McCain 93, Romney 77), but McCain has all of the national momentum and most of the favorable media coverage.
Virtually no pundit is expecting anything but a McCain landslide on Super Tuesday, and yet there are still several states in play of the 21 on the calendar. The question is not whether McCain will remain on top in the delegate count at the end of the night, but whether Romney (and to some extent Mike Huckabee) wins enough states to put a dent into McCain's armour of inevitability.
The conservative backlash to the McCain coronation has been fierce, as evidenced by the harsh commentary directed at the Arizona Senator by influential right-wing commentators like Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and Laura Ingraham. If McCain loses, say, 8 or 9 of the 21 states on Tuesday, there may be enough of an opening for Romney to continue his campaign.
Several states are not likely to be competitive on Super Tuesday. McCain is running strong in his home state of Arizona, plus Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey, and New York. Huckabee will carry his home state of Arkansas. Romney will carry his home state of Massachusetts, plus Utah and the Colorado caucuses.
Five additional states will hold caucuses on Super Tuesday: Alaska, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, and West Virginia. Minimal polling has been conducted in these states, but Romney has proven very strong in caucuses thus far (winning in Wyoming, Nevada, and Maine), while McCain has not won any. Smart Politics projects Romney will win at least 3 of these caucuses, though the independent-friendly state of Minnesota will likely go to the Arizona Senator.
In the remaining 7 states, 5 are in the south (Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Tennessee), 1 is in the West (California), and 1 is in the Northeast (Delaware).
Smart Politics projects a McCain victory in Delaware.
In each of the Southern states, McCain is either leading or in a statistical tie for the lead according to the latest polls. McCain should win the majority of these Southern states. Romney appears to be out of contention in Alabama, Oklahoma, and Tennessee, and is competitive in tight three-way races in Georgia and Missouri. Romney's best chance is Georgia, and Huckabee's best shot is either Tennessee or Missouri.
That leaves the delegate-rich state of California. Polls show a dead heat between McCain and Romney. Obama's surge in California might be working to Romney's benefit, as independent-minded voters move away from McCain. Smart Politics projects Romney ekes out a win in California.
By the end of Tuesday night, Smart Politics expects McCain to carry 12 or 13 states, with Romney winning 6 or 7 and Huckabee winning 2 or 3. If those numbers come to fruition, Romney will remain in the race at least through Saturday's caucuses in Kansas and Washington and primary in Louisiana.