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McCain Leading in Early California Primary Returns

John McCain took an early lead over Mitt Romney in California's big-prize presidential primary Tuesday, where the Arizona senator sought to cap a Super Tuesday rout with a win in the nation's most pop

John McCain took an early lead over Mitt Romney in California's big-prize presidential primary Tuesday, where the Arizona senator sought to cap a Super Tuesday rout with a win in the nation's most populous state.

With 11 percent of precincts reporting, McCain had 367,460 votes, or 44 percent, to 212,828 for Romney, or 25 percent.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee trailed with 97,548, or 12 percent.

McCain was hoping a big win in California - the marquee prize on Super Tuesday - would help cement his front-runner status after rolling up victories on the delegate-rich East Coast.

Signs of a tightening race sent both candidates racing back to California this week, and an exit survey of voters pointed to a close contest. Romney spent lavishly on advertising - the lone Republican in the state to air TV commercials - in hopes of stalling his rival's momentum.

Romney's survival could depend on the state. He conceded the bulk of the Northeast to McCain, counting instead on his home state of Massachusetts, which he won, and a strong showing in California, Colorado and Minnesota to extend his presidential campaign beyond Super Tuesday.

California divvies up 170 Republican delegates - nearly one-fifth of those at stake for Republicans on Super Tuesday.

But it's really 53 separate races. For the first time, the state awarded three delegates to the winner in each congressional district, creating a political chessboard

A survey of voters leaving polling places found McCain was the overwhelming choice of party moderates and those looking for decisive leadership at a time of war. Romney has been fighting to win over conservatives who predominate in California's GOP primary, and the exit poll found he was the favorite of "very conservative" voters as well as those who identified illegal immigration as the nation's top issue.

To no surprise, illegal immigration was a top issue for many California Republicans.

Exit polls found Romney was strongly favored by those who want illegal workers deported. Some conservatives saw McCain as the face of liberal immigration policy, but the Arizona senator also won votes for proposing a pathway to citizenship for illegal workers.