(CNN) -- Arizona Sen. John McCain piled up wins in the Republican race for the White House Tuesday -- with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee also surging to victories throughout the South just days after ignoring calls to drop out of the race.
By late Tuesday, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney also had won several states -- but mainly in places he was expected to win handily or states with far fewer delegates than the states being won by Huckabee.
McCain appeared headed to the top spots in California, Missouri, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Connecticut, Oklahoma, Delaware and his home state of Arizona, based on early returns and results from exit polls in those states.
CNN declared McCain the winner in delegate-rich California shortly before 12:30 a.m. (ET) Wednesday. Earlier, he was upbeat as he spoke to supporters.
"Although I've never minded the role of the underdog and have relished as much as anyone come-from-behind wins, tonight I think we must get used to the idea that we are the Republican Party front-runner," McCain said. "And I don't really mind it one bit." Watch McCain celebrate Tuesday's wins
Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor recently written off as a spoiler by other Republican front-runners, was projected to make a showing that could slingshot him back into contention -- winning the West Virginia party convention then primaries in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and his home state of Arkansas.
The former Southern governor and Baptist minister showed well among evangelicals and other social conservatives -- edging out McCain and Romney throughout the South in tight races.
"Over the past few days, a lot of people have been trying to say that this is a two-man race," Huckabee said to cheering supporters in Little Rock, Arkansas, Tuesday night. "Well, you know what? It is and we're in it." Watch Huckabee's Super Tuesday sports analogies
In addition to North Dakota, Colorado and Montana, Romney -- who had been campaigning as the only viable conservative alternative to national front-runner McCain -- had projected wins in Massachusetts, the state he used to govern, and Utah -- where, as a Mormon, he garnered support from the state's huge Mormon population.
Late Tuesday night, he assured his supporters he wasn't dropping out of the race and would "keep on battling ... all the way to the convention."
"One thing that's clear is this campaign's going on," said Romney. Watch Romney talk about battling on
On the line Tuesday were more than 1,000 of the 1,191 delegates necessary for the Republican nomination.
The day started in West Virginia, where Huckabee won the GOP convention delegates on the second round of balloting. Romney came in second and McCain a distant third.
Romney led the first round of voting in West Virginia but it appeared supporters of McCain, who placed a distant third on the first ballot, moved over to Huckabee, helping him gain the majority needed to win and the state's 18 delegates.
California was the largest prize of the day, with 170 Republican delegates to the GOP convention at stake. New York was worth 101 delegates. Other big states included Illinois with 57 delegates, New Jersey with 52 delegates, Massachusetts with 40 delegates and Connecticut with 27.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who received less than 10 percent on Tuesday's first ballot in West Virginia, did not win any Super Tuesday states.
McCain, who had won primaries in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, was hoping for a big result Tuesday to continue his momentum and catapult himself to the nomination.
Most of the GOP state contests allocate delegates on a winner-take-all basis -- either by congressional district or by statewide vote -- meaning Tuesday was more likely to be decisive for Republicans than for Democrats, who commonly split delegates by a proportion of the popular vote.
Big-state wins by McCain, who leads national GOP polls, have the potential to propel him to a towering lead over his rivals.
Speaking to media after arriving in Phoenix, Arizona, Tuesday afternoon, McCain said he liked his chances.
"I'm guardedly optimistic that we'll emerge tonight with a good lead, but I'm very superstitious so I'm not predicting anything," McCain said.
The candidates made last-minute appeals to voters Tuesday, with McCain telling New York supporters his campaign would "take the battle to the enemy."
Romney, speaking in Charleston, West Virginia, early Tuesday, turned to a familiar theme of his campaign, the U.S. economy. If the United States doesn't become more globally competitive, he said, "we could find ourselves as a second-rate power."
"I'm convinced that China or Asia or other parts of the world will pass us by unless we get serious about strengthening the ability to compete," Romney told the convention delegates.
Going into Tuesday, Romney had won primaries in Nevada and his home state of Michigan.
In recent days, the former Massachusetts governor has stepped up his criticism of McCain's conservative credentials, positioning himself as the conservative alternative to the Arizona senator, who has alienated many in the GOP's activist base with his stands on immigration reform and campaign-finance reform. Romney has also blasted him for voting against President Bush's 2001 tax cuts.
Conservative talk show hosts, including Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham, have blasted McCain in recent weeks, calling him too liberal and saying his nomination would split the party. In Arizona, McCain downplayed the perceived rift between himself and his party's base.
"These primaries are tough -- everyone understands that," he said. "But as soon as I'm the nominee, we'll join the party all together and we'll move forward toward November."
Romney suggested Sunday that Huckabee get out of the race because he was splitting the conservative vote. His campaign also issued a sharply worded statement Tuesday accusing the McCain and Huckabee campaigns of striking a deal in West Virginia in an effort to hurt Romney.
"Well, yesterday he was chiding me -- he said not to whine," Huckabee said. "Today's he's changed his position on whining and today he's for whining. So once again Mitt has been able to take both sides of all issues, including whining."
Romney's rivals have attacked him for shifting from more liberal stances when he was governor of Massachusetts to more conservative ones now that he's seeking the GOP nomination.
After winning the campaign-opening Iowa caucuses, Huckabee had been outspent by Romney and McCain and had struggled to keep pace, failing to win another contest until Tuesday.
McCain and Huckabee's performances came despite Romney outspending them on advertising by millions of dollars.
Romney, an independently wealthy businessman, has invested $30 million so far on campaign commercials and $3.5 million in just the past two weeks.
McCain has spent $8.5 million on television, $2.4 million of that in the past two weeks, and Huckabee has put in $2.9 million -- $300,000 since January 21.
Those figures were compiled by TNS Media Intelligence/CMAG, CNN's consultant on political ad spending. E-mail to a friend