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Exit polls: Moderates give McCain a boost in Wisconsin

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  • NEW: McCain will win Wisconsin, Washington state primaries, CNN projects
  • McCain backers more concerned about war; for Huckabee backers, it's economy
  • Exit polls also show McCain also scores on experience; Huckabee on values
  • 59 percent of Wisconsin GOP voters polled called economy not good or poor
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(CNN) -- John McCain still has trouble with GOP voters who consider themselves "very conservative," but his strength among moderates and those who say they are only "somewhat conservative" made up for the deficit among the more orthodox in Tuesday's GOP primary in Wisconsin, exit polls showed.

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Arizona Sen. John McCain speaks at a rally during a campaign stop Tuesday in Brookfield, Wisconsin.

McCain voters were also slightly more concerned about the war in Iraq than the economy, which was otherwise the top issue on the minds of Wisconsin Republican voters.

McCain will handily win the primary, CNN projects, with more than 50 percent of the vote, according to the exit polls. CNN also projects that McCain will win the Washington state GOP primary, based on early results that showed him with a commanding lead.

Nearly half of the voters who said they were very conservative cast their ballots for McCain's chief rival, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. But McCain voters made up 38 percent of that number -- and 55 percent of the somewhat conservative Republicans went for McCain while 70 percent of the moderates followed suit.

Evangelical voters still flocked to Huckabee, a one-time Baptist minister.

Overall, McCain won a plurality of the nearly two-thirds of Wisconsin Republicans who identified themselves as conservatives, taking 48 percent to Huckabee's 42 percent. Texas Congressman Ron Paul, the only other Republican still in the race, was taking 5 percent of conservatives, and Mitt Romney, who withdrew two weeks ago, was taking 3 percent.

In Wisconsin, 77 percent of the GOP voters said they'd be satisfied if McCain is the GOP nominee. Fifty percent said McCain's positions were "about right," but 42 percent said he was "not conservative enough."

The exit polls showed the economy was the top concern among Wisconsin Republicans, as it has been in every primary and caucus this year. But McCain voters showed a different side -- by a narrow 35 percent to 33 percent, they were more concerned about the war in Iraq than the economy.

McCain voters made up 67 percent of those most concerned about Iraq, the polls showed, while Huckabee voters made up 36 percent of those most concerned about the economy. Fifty-nine percent of the Wisconsin GOP voters said the economy was either not good or poor.

The polls also showed that voters looking for experience tapped McCain, the four-term Arizona senator, while voters looking for a candidate that shares their values chose Huckabee. Video Watch Wisconsin voters cast their ballots at a Green Bay school »

Campaigning in Columbus, Ohio -- where voters go to the polls next Tuesday -- McCain thanked Wisconsin voters for bringing him to the point where "this superstitious former naval aviator can claim with confidence and humility that I will be our party's nominee for president of the United States."

He wasted no time going after Democratic front-runner Barack Obama, the senator from Illinois, promising to "fight every moment of every day ... to make sure that Americans are not deceived by an eloquent but empty call for change that promises no more than a holiday from history and return to the false promises and failed policies of a tired philosophy that trusts in government more than the people."

Without calling out Obama by name, McCain clearly indicated that his "judgment and experience" trumped the risk of "the confused leadership of an inexperienced candidate." Video Watch McCain thank his supporters and family as he appeals to voters »

Republican front-runner McCain was hoping for a win in the Wisconsin primary to push him closer to the nomination. He has won 830 delegates in the previous Republican contests. Last week, he won the endorsement of Romney, who asked his delegates to vote for McCain at the party's September convention in Minneapolis.

McCain needs 1,191 delegates to win the GOP nomination. Thirty-seven GOP delegates are at stake in Wisconsin.

Romney amassed 286 delegates before dropping out. Huckabee has 217.

Huckabee said Tuesday night he was "disappointed with the results in Wisconsin" -- and he was hard-pressed to find a silver lining in the loss. Video Watch Huckabee thank voters, supporters, tell why he continues quest »

"You always look for some hint of good news in the midst of the bad," he told reporters in Little Rock, Arkansas. "And frankly, even in what was less than the kind of performance we wanted in Wisconsin, there was good news. Some of you were with me the other day when I went out on a limb and pledged that if we won Wisconsin that I would put the cheese-head on and be photographed in a cheese-head. So there I was with that prediction and comment that I would do that. So the bad news is that we did not win Wisconsin, but the good news is I don't have to have to be photographed with a cheese-head on tonight."

Huckabee praised his opponent for his "graciousness" but said he would continue his campaign because of his convictions and principles on social, economic and other issues.

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"There are many people in our party who have yet to vote," he said. " ... Ending this race prematurely means they don't get a voice, and they don't have a choice."

"Elections can be a messy thing," he added. "That's part of the process. I didn't make the rules, but I plan to play by them. And the rules are that somebody has to have 1,191 votes to be the nominee, and that has not happened. Until it does, we will keep marching on." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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