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McCain emerges as GOP leader; Romney reassesses campaign

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  • NEW: "It's difficult to saddle up this a.m.," one Romney aide tells CNN
  • Huckabee says he won states Republicans must win to capture White House
  • Sen. John McCain wins nine states; Romney seven; five for Huckabee
  • McCain: "We are the Republican Party front-runner ... and I don't mind it one bit"
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(CNN) -- Sen. John McCain awoke Wednesday with a commanding lead in the race for Republican delegates while former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney plans to meet with aides after a disappointing Super Tuesday showing.

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"We are the Republican Party front-runner," said Sen. John McCain, "and I don't really mind it one bit."

"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 Tuesday night in his home state of Arizona. "And I don't really mind it one bit."

Despite finishing second to McCain in terms of GOP delegates won in Super Tuesday contests, Romney assured supporters late Tuesday he would "keep on battling ... all the way to the convention."

But top Romney advisers acknowledged that it will be difficult to overcome McCain's lead in the delegate count.

"It is tough to saddle up this a.m.," one Romney adviser told CNN.

Romney, who did not have any public events scheduled for Wednesday, was planning to huddle with his aides to discuss a strategy to stay in the race through March 4, when Ohio, Rhode Island, Texas and Vermont will hold primaries.

Although he outspent his rivals, Romney received just 175 delegates on Super Tuesday, compared with at least 504 for McCain and 141 for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, according to CNN estimates. Video Watch McCain's jubilant speech »

The battle for the Republican nomination now shifts to Louisiana and Washington, where voters will cast ballots on Saturday. GOP voters cast ballots next Tuesday in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C.

Before Tuesday's voting, the Romney campaign had a plan to launch an television advertising campaign in the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore markets, Romney advisers said.

"As of early this a.m., it was a go," said one of the campaign sources.

"We can do the math, but there are still openings," said another. Romney now has 269 delegates overall.

On Tuesday, Huckabee's victory in several southern states cast doubt on Romney's contention that he is the candidate for conservatives who want to derail McCain's bid. See how candidates fared in individual states »

McCain won nine states Tuesday compared with seven for Romney and five for Huckabee. McCain's performance included victories in delegate-rich California and New York, and he appeared to have captured a lion's share of the 1,020 delegates at stake Tuesday. Photo See compelling Super Tuesday photos »

While another 22 GOP nominating contests remain over the next four months, McCain's gains Tuesday propelled him much closer to 1,191 delegates needed to secure the GOP nomination. He now has 616.

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Huckabee, recently written off as a "spoiler" by other Republican front-runners, made a showing that could slingshot him back into contention. He won the West Virginia party convention and primaries in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and his home state of Arkansas. He now has 170 delegates.

"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." Video Watch more of Huckabee's address »

The Baptist minister showed well among evangelicals and other social conservatives, edging out McCain and Romney throughout the South in tight races. See how analysts scored the night »

Appearing on CNN on Wednesday, Huckabee proclaimed himself "the conservative, period." He said he proved his continued viability by winning "in states a Republican has to win ... to capture the White House."

But he also acknowledged that the GOP fight may prove "that none of us have enough [delegates] to win the whole thing until we get to the convention."

In addition to North Dakota, Colorado and Montana, Romney -- who also has been campaigning as the only viable conservative alternative to McCain -- had wins in Massachusetts, the state he used to govern, and Utah -- where, as a Mormon, he clearly garnered support from the state's huge Mormon population.

By late Tuesday night, he was reduced to having to assure his supporters he wasn't dropping out of the race.

"One thing that's clear is this campaign's going on," said Romney. Video Watch more of Romney's remarks »

Huckabee won West Virginia's GOP convention delegates on the second round of balloting. Romney came in second and McCain a distant third.

Most of the GOP state contests allocate delegates on a winner-take-all basis, either by congressional district or by statewide vote.

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 consistently 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 should 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.

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.

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After winning the campaign-opening Iowa caucuses, Huckabee had been badly 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. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's John King and Dana Bash contributed to this report.

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