John McCain's delayed gratification

McCain beats Mike Huckabee -- barely -- in Virginia to complete his Potomac sweep.

Published February 13, 2008 2:50AM (EST)

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- It wasn't the weather that delayed John McCain's victory speech tonight -- though nearly everyone in the D.C. area (home of either the "Potomac primaries" or the "Chesapeake primaries," depending on what you think about alliteration) appeared to curl up into a helpless, immobile defensive crouch in the face of an ice storm that rolled through during the evening rush hour.

No, what kept McCain from speaking before 9:45 p.m. was the fact that he hadn't, well, really won until not long before then. A Mike Huckabee mini-surge in Virginia threatened to embarrass McCain for the second Election Day in a row, after Huckabee won two of three contests on Saturday (and only narrowly lost the third, in Washington state). McCain managed to hang on for his widely anticipated regional sweep, but it was close enough to make strategists, supporters and the candidate alike a little nervous as returns came in.

And then, once the returns from moderate counties in northern Virginia and military-heavy precincts near Norfolk had come in, McCain had to delay his speech once more because all the networks were carrying a Barack Obama rally from Madison, Wisc., live. McCain already got bumped off the air on Super Tuesday by Obama, and advisors apparently decided that was unpleasant enough to avoid. Supporters booed Obama when he appeared on the screen in the Holiday Inn ballroom where McCain held his party.

Meanwhile, Huckabee had fled the state after two days of constant campaigning, watching the returns from Little Rock. His aides had expected the race to be closer than recent polls, which put him down by more than 20 points. But lower than expected turnout -- which meant conservatives took a higher share of the electorate -- and intense interest in the Democratic race -- which meant independents may have gravitated there -- helped make it even closer.

By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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