Gasping to the Finish Line

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Sandy Huffaker / Getty

A voter prepares his ballot at the Cesar Chavez Recreation Center February 5, 2008 in San Diego, California.

It's the rare primary day that has campaigns eyeing the national weather maps and trying to assess who might be helped or hurt by storms in Missouri and tornadoes in Tennessee and early springtime in Georgia. "The weather's kind of weird," said Obama adviser David Axelrod, "so I don't know what that's going to do," he said. But rains and floods and a foot of snow in Colorado was not enough to dampen turnout in the closest thing to a national primary in American history.

Hillary Clinton was in New York, struggling to hang onto her lead and her voice. She had close to 40 interviews lined up for today, from the morning shows to drive time radio to Ryan Seacrest on KIIS-FM, but her cough had gotten so bad she had to cut short a live San Francisco interview. At least she still had Jack Nicholson, who the campaign said was robo-calling on her behalf.

Obama started the day at 5:20, did all six morning shows, well aware after New Hampshire of the perils of too much good news. Though the latest polls had him closing in on Clinton in many states where she once had a double digit lead, he told CBS's Early Show that Clinton "has to be the prohibitive favorite going in, given her name recognition, but we've been steadily chipping away." He then headed back to Illinois, where after voting, he planned to look for a game of pick-up basketball. Axelrod said he thought about playing but "I probably should be working."

Mitt Romney, meanwhile, admitted his exhaustion. "You will hear me saying the wrong word on occasion," he told Republican delegates to West Virginia's nomination convention. "The reason is lack of sleep." Wrong was right, after he beat up not only on McCain but his fellow war hero Bob Dole, who had been defending McCain against his conservative talk radio tormentors. Romney told Fox news that Dole was "probably the last person" he would want defending him. "I think there are a lot of folks who tend to think that maybe John McCain's race is a bit like Bob Dole's race. That it's the guy who's next in line, the inevitable choice." If that was meant to paint McCain as an old and weary Washington insider, it allowed McCain to tag Romney as a mean and tone deaf political hitman. He quickly called on Romney to apologize to "a person who is an American war hero, who built our party and who served our party so well for so long."

Mike Huckabee watched it all in the happy glow of news that he had actually won the West Virginia GOP caucus over Romney, despite Romney's having hired a consultant there in 2006, and a full-time staffer in the summer of 2007.

It will be clearer later tonight whether pride or prejudice pulled the GOP candidates out of position: McCain spent precious weekend time in Romney's home state of Massachusetts, since a win there would be the ultimate diss of the rival they so dislike. That left him stuck for hours in the air today flying west to California for a last minute trip, after polls showed Romney surging there. "It's game day and we're gonna be in the air with no information!" said one senior Mccain aide. The one consolation was that Romney had left California at the critical hour to appear at the West Virginia gathering, only to lose to Huckabee anyway. After Romney led the first ballot, McCain supporters switched sides to Huckabee to deny Romney a victory.

All the activity on the Democratic side just spoke to the stakes: 1,681 delegates to be divided up in proportion to the popular vote in 22 states. Though that is more than half the 2,025 needed to win the nomination, it's unlikely either candidate will emerge the presumptive favorite; in a sign of just how tight the race is, a TIME election poll showed that 62% of Democrats thought Clinton should choose Obama as her running mate if she were to win the nomination, while 51% thought Obama should pick Clinton if he was at the top of the ticket this fall. The primary rules are so convoluted that either candidate could win more states and still not emerge with a significant edge in delegates; in some places the strategy has come down to focusing on congressional districts with an odd number of delegates in hopes of picking up one here, one there. "Obviously," Clinton told reporters traveling with her over the weekend, "we're all making it up as we go."

The Republican side promised more clarity, since most of its 21 contests are winner take all: a McCain victory in New York could net him as many delegates as he has earned to date in all the previous races Even as the conservative commentariat continued to hammer McCain for his heresies — with Ann Coulter going so far as to propose that she'd campaign for Hillary — the party mainstream seemed ready to rally around the man that two thirds of Republicans considered the most electable candidate, and then pray for Clinton to do the work of healing a broken party for them. If there was encouraging news for Republicans, it was that their family fight might soon be over — while the Democrats may be draining the candidates' time and resources for many more weeks to come.

with reporting by Jay Carney, Michael Scherer and Jay Newton-Small