GOP Faithful Carry Bush to Easy Victory

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From the very first Super Tuesday exit polls, the numbers pointed to a very big win for George W. Bush. By early afternoon, TIME political correspondent John Dickerson, in Los Angeles with John McCain, put his finger on the prevailing mood. "It's shaping up to be a really bad night for this campaign," he said. It turned out that was something of an understatement. As the evening wore on, the suspense quickly waned and voters waited to see just how decisive the Bush victory would be.

And in the end it was a Texas-size triumph, with Bush taking Maryland, Georgia, Ohio, Missouri and California by wide margins, and eking out a win in the hotly contested New York primary, chalking up 639 delegates of the 1,034 needed. Governor Bush also dealt a blow to the McCain campaign's hopes of a New England sweep, snatching Maine from under the senator's nose and leaving McCain with the cold comfort of his success in Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. "It's just a matter of time now before he leaves the race," says Dickerson.

Faced with the end of an exhilarating Republican skirmish, the pundits speculated endlessly through the night, trying to pinpoint the moment at which John McCain's upstart campaign derailed. Some pointed to his loss in a bitter South Carolina contest; others blamed his lackluster showing in Washington State for slowing his momentum. But while the geographical epicenter of McCain's defeat will remain a matter of spirited debate, there is little doubt as to his demographic downfall. Core Republicans, along with self-identified Christian conservatives, voted for Governor Bush in droves, apparently punishing McCain for his spirited denunciation of the "forces of evil" in the Christian Coalition. "That attack was a colossal mistake for McCain," says TIME correspondent Jay Carney, traveling with the Bush campaign. "He managed to make a bad story line for Bush — the Bob Jones University visit — into a bad story line for himself."

Though Bush demurred Tuesday night when asked directly about his plans for the general election, insisting the race for the nomination "isn't over yet," his suddenly conciliatory tone toward McCain told another story. "I didn't take anything that was said in this contest personally," Bush declared. "It's time for our party to come together again to end the era of Clinton and Gore."