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ST. LOUIS (Reuters) - Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were locked in a near dead heat two days before the biggest presidential voting so far while John McCain tried to nail down the Republican nomination for the White House.
With 24 states holding nominating contests from coast to coast on Tuesday, the candidates crisscrossed the country, leading rallies and urging supporters to get out and vote.
The Democratic race had narrowed to a nearly a draw in recent national polls while McCain hoped to win enough delegates to the national convention to effectively be the party's presidential nominee in the November election.
Obama held a slight lead in California, the biggest prize of all where Clinton once led handily, and was virtually tied with Clinton in New Jersey and Missouri -- three of the states voting on "Super Tuesday" -- in a Reuters/C-SPAN/Zogby poll released on Sunday.
While the two people seeking to be the Democratic choice were vying to win the most delegates, they also were making the argument of being the most electable candidate to face McCain in November.
Clinton, the New York senator who was a major target of conservatives since being first lady in the 1990s, said her record was well known and she had already weathered heated attacks while Obama, a first-term senator from Illinois, was still an unknown quantity.
"My opponent hasn't had to go through that kind of baptism by fire," she told a St. Louis rally. "This is going to be open season once again, and we need to nominate someone with the experience and the fortitude and the know-how to take whatever they send our way and send it right back."
Obama, who would be the first black U.S. president, pointed to independents and young people voting for him and said he would not have to defend a Senate vote authorizing the war in Iraq.
"If John McCain is the (Republican) nominee, then the Democratic Party has to ask itself, do you want a candidate who has similar policies to John McCain on the war in Iraq or someone who can offer a stark contrast?" Obama asked a rally in Wilmington, Delaware.
"I'm always pleased to have so much attention from the nominees -- or the two contenders for the Democratic nomination," McCain said on CBS' "Face the Nation."
Even with half the Democratic national convention delegates at stake and more than 40 percent of the Republican, it could be that no candidate would clinch the nomination on Tuesday. But a big vote across the board could go a long way toward that goal.
McCain, an Arizona senator, held a 2-to-1 margin in a new national Washington Post-ABC poll. In the Reuters/C-SPAN/Zogby poll, McCain held double-digit leads in New York, New Jersey and Missouri but narrowly trailed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in California.
McCain was guardedly optimistic about his chances on Super Tuesday but admitted that after an up-and-down campaign year, "I'm very nervous about it."
Superstitious by nature, McCain knocked on the table of his campaign bus in Fairfield, Connecticut, to give himself good luck. But he also talked willingly about how he would conduct a general election campaign if he wins the nomination.
Even as his lead in the polls widened, McCain still faced questions from one section of the party over whether he was conservative enough.
Romney hit that theme and pointed to a large turnout in Maine on Saturday that gave him a victory there as evidence conservatives were giving McCain another look.
"I'm afraid it's going to be real hard to win the White House if there's not much difference between our nominee and theirs, and that's why I'm going to make sure that we stand for Republican ideals," Romney told a Glen Ellyn, Illinois, rally.
But McCain pointed to a number of prominent Republican conservatives who were supporting him.
"I'm very happy with where we are," he said. "I'm pleased at the gathering support from all parts of the party that we're gaining."
One of the problems facing Romney on Super Tuesday is that he is competing for conservative votes along with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Huckabee said Romney, as a late comer to conservative causes, should recognize him as the true conservative and get out of the race.
"He wants to try to claim that he's the true conservative," Huckabee said on CNN's "Late Edition." "I think that's what rankles many of us. ... He's a recent convert, and now he is shouting hallelujah louder than the rest of us who have been in church a long time."
(Writing by David Wiessler; additional reporting by Steve Holland, Jeff Mason, Claudia Parsons and Susan Cornwell; Editing by Jackie Frank)
For more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/