WASHINGTON -- Barack Obama routed Hillary Rodham Clinton in four Democratic contests, Saturday and one Sunday completing the best night of his campaign and securing a burst of momentum for upcoming races Tuesday.
President George W. Bush, meanwhile, described John McCain, in an interview to air Sunday, as a "true conservative." The comments were aimed at helping the presumptive Republican nominee woo the party's skeptical base of conservatives, a difficult task evidenced by the veteran Arizona senator's embarassing, but largely symbolic, losses the night before to rival Mike Huckabee.
Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, snatched two victories Saturday from McCain. Although the wins in Kansas and Louisiana were no threat to the Arizona senator's lead, they reflected the difficulty he faces convincing conservatives who view him as a political maverick out-of-step with the party on key issues like immigation, tax cuts and campaign finance reform. McCain narrowly won Saturday night's third Republican race, in Washington state.
Obama won caucuses in Maine, Nebraska and Washington state and the primary in Louisiana, a state ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and where residents remain angered by the Bush administration's slow response to the disaster.
Obama also notched a victory in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The first-term senator's winning margins were substantial, ranging from more than two-thirds of the vote in Washington and Nebraska to nearly 90 percent in the Virgin Islands.
In Louisiana, Obama had 57 percent of the vote, to 36 percent for Clinton, according to complete returns.
"Today, voters from the West Coast to the Gulf Coast to the heart of America stood up to say 'yes we can"' Obama told a cheering audience of Democrats at the party dinner in Richmond, Virginia, Saturday night.
Clinton preceded Obama to the podium. She did not refer to the night's voting, instead turning against McCain whose virtually assured nomination has forced both Democrats to reshape their strategies and cast themselves as best-suited to defeating him. "We have tried it President Bush's way," the former first lady said, "and now the Republicans have chosen more of the same."
She left quickly after her speech, departing before Obama's arrival. But his supporters made their presence known, sending up chants of "Obama" from the audience as she made her way offstage.
Obama also painted McCain as offering a continuation of unpopular Bush policies in his speech.
"He has made the decision to embrace the failed policies of George Bush's Washington," Obama said of McCain. "He speaks of a 100-year war in Iraq and sees another on the horizon with Iran."
As in his earlier Southern triumphs in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, Obama, who is bidding to become the first black president, rode a wave of African-American support to victory in Louisiana. Clinton won the white vote overwhelmingly by a nearly 3-1 margin.
According to a CNN count of delegates. Clinton holds a narrow 27-delegate lead over Obama, 1,148 to 1,121, down from her lead of more than 100 delegates a month ago.
The estimate includes the so-called superdelegates -- party leaders such as governors and congressional representatives, not chosen at primaries or caucuses, who free to change their minds. A total of 2,025 delegates is required to win the nomination at the national convention in Denver in late August.
Obama and Clinton will now compete in primaries on Tuesday in Maryland, Virginia and Washington D.C. -- all contests where Obama is thought to have an advantage.
McCain faltered in his first ballot test since he picked up hundreds of delegates in the Super Tuesday races and drove former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, his main rival, out of the race.
Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister who is a favorite among Christian conservatives, got nearly 60 percent of the caucus vote in Kansas, winning all 36 delegates at stake. He also won the Louisiana primary, but fell short of 50 percent, the threshold necessary to pocket the 20 delegates that were available. Instead, they will be awarded at a state convention next weekend.
But McCain's march to the nomination seemed unstoppable. He has 719 delegates out of a total 1,191 needed to secure the Republican nomination at the party's convention in St. Paul, Minnesota in early September. Huckabee had 234 delegates.
McCain won the Washington state caucuses, but unconvincingly with only 26 percent of the vote. Huckabee was close behind with 24 percent, libertarian-learning Texas Rep. Ron Paul had 21 percent, and Romney had 17 percent, despite quitting the race. None of the state's delegates will be awarded until next week.
The longtime senator, trying to unite his party behind him, has received the backing of former rival Fred Thompson _ a favorite of conservatives who dropped out of the race after a poor showing in early contests. On Saturday, McCain also received an endorsement from John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and a conservative.
In a taped interview to air on "Fox News Sunday", Bush highlighted McCain's fiscal and national security credentials, but stressed that the former Vietnam prisoner-of-war will have to work harder to convince conservatives he is one of their own.
The comments were a clear indication that McCain is expected to win the nomination and that Bush, although facing his lowest popularity ratings, is prepared to support him against whoever emerges victorious in Clinton and Obama's race. Both candidates pose serious threats to Republicans' hopes of remaining in the White House at a time when Americans have increasingly soured on the Bush administration.
Bush, asked about Clinton and Obama's attacks on his performance, said: "If the Democrat party feels like they can win an election by focusing on me, I think they'll be making a huge tactical mistake."
He said some of the criticism directed at McCain was the result of "probably, some personal animosity toward me. You can't please all the people all the time."
But Bush's embrace could prove troublesome for McCain by reducing his appeal to independent voters in the November election. Bush reached his lowest approval rating in The Associated Press-Ipsos poll on Friday as only 30 percent said they like the job he is doing, including an all-time low in his support by Republicans.
The Democrats' race was as close as the Republicans' was not, after a slew of Super Tuesday contests failed to provide any clarity in their battle and made it likely they will continue their duel until the national convention. The three state races Saturday, as well as the minor competition in the Virgin Islands, were exceedingly important in helping separate two candidates who have traded barbs and wins from the outset in a tense showdown between a black man and a woman.
Preliminary results of a survey of voters leaving their polling places in Louisiana showed that nearly half of those casting ballots were black. As a group, African-Americans have overwhelmingly favored Obama and helped him to win in some earlier primaries.
One in seven Democratic voters and about one in 10 Republicans said Hurricane Katrina had caused their families severe hardship from which they have not recovered more than two years later. There was another indication of the impact the storm had on the state. Early results suggested that northern Louisiana accounted for a larger share of the electorate than in the past, presumably the result of the decline of population in the hurricane-battered New Orleans area in the south.
Following the weekend contests and Tuesday's trio of races, the next major test comes in the high-stakes March 4 primaries in Ohio and Texas, where Clinton, in particular, has geared her campaign. Rhode Island and Vermont also vote that day.
Republican primaries will also be held in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., on Tuesday.
The Associated Press