WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton looked ahead on Wednesday to a long and bruising presidential battle, and Clinton said she had pumped $5 million of her own money into the costly fight to keep pace.
Republican John McCain, still facing conservative opposition, promised to unite his party as his coast-to-coast “Super Tuesday” wins in key states put him on the verge of clinching his party’s nomination and capping a stunning political comeback.
“I hope that at some point we would calm down a little bit and see if there are areas that we can agree on for the good of the party,” the Arizona senator told reporters in Phoenix before a speech on Thursday to a conference of conservative activists in Washington.
Obama and Clinton battled to a draw on “Super Tuesday,” with Obama winning 13 states and Clinton eight, including the big prizes of California and New York. Their delegate race also was almost even, propelling the fight toward the next round of seven Democratic contests in the next six days.
Clinton tried to keep up with Obama’s growing fund-raising prowess -- he raised about $32 million in January to her less than $14 million -- by loaning her campaign $5 million late last month.
“I loaned it because I believe very strongly in this campaign,” she told reporters at her campaign headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, a state that votes next Tuesday.
“We had a great month fund-raising in January, broke all records, but my opponent was able raise more money and we intended to be competitive and we were and I think the results last night proved the wisdom of my investment,” she said.
Both candidates touted their performances on Tuesday and tried to lower expectations for the next contests, even as they looked toward a protracted Democratic fight.
“We’ve got many more rounds to fight and you know I think that Senator Clinton remains the favorite because of the enormous familiarity people have with her and the institutional support she has,” Obama told reporters in Chicago.
“But you know we’re turning out to be a scrappy little team,” he said. “I think we are less of an underdog than we were two weeks ago.”
The Democrats will square off in Louisiana, Nebraska and Washington on Saturday, Maine on Sunday, and Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia on Tuesday.
Under Democratic Party rules, delegates are proportioned by results statewide and in individual congressional districts. This enables both candidates to roll up big delegate totals even in states they lose.
That increased the likelihood that the hotly contested Democratic race could last well into March contests in Texas and Ohio, an April contest in Pennsylvania and perhaps all the way to the party convention in late August.
“As we go farther and farther into this, it is less and less likely that either side will be able to significantly amass a large delegate lead,” Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson said. “Every single delegate is going to matter a great deal.”
Various counts put the Democratic race for pledged delegates in an essential deadlock. Obama led Clinton 838 to 834 in the MSNBC count, well short of the 2,025 needed to win the nomination.
Clinton leads among “super-delegates,” the elected officials and party insiders who can switch allegiance at will.
All three of the senators in the presidential race -- Obama, Clinton and McCain -- returned to Washington on Wednesday to vote on an economic stimulus package in the Senate.
“We will unite the party behind our conservative principles and move forward to the general election in November,” McCain told reporters in Phoenix, acknowledging conservative concerns about his past stances on immigration, tax cuts and other issues.
McCain, whose campaign was all but dead last summer, won nine states on Tuesday, including California and New York, giving him a huge haul of the convention delegates who select the party’s presidential nominee.
Republican rivals Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee vowed to fight on but could face questions about their viability. Romney won seven states and Huckabee five on Tuesday.
The MSNBC count gave McCain 720 delegates, Romney 256 and Huckabee 194, pulling McCain closer to the 1,191 needed to clinch the nomination.
McCain, who lost the Republican primary race in 2000 to George W. Bush, dropped plans for a possible trip to Germany to attend an international security conference so he could focus on his campaign.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and wealthy venture capitalist who has spent at least $35 million of his own money on the race, has argued McCain lacks the conservative credentials to be the party nominee.
Romney also is scheduled to address the conference of conservative activists in Washington on Thursday, while Huckabee was to speak there on Saturday.
(Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Jeff Mason, Andy Sullivan, Donna Smith; Editing by Chris Wilson)
For more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/