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Texas Enjoys Unexpected Spotlight

Republican presidential hopeful, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., talks to supporters during a campaign stop at Mi Tierra Cafe in San Antonio, Texas, Tuesday, March 8, 2008.
AP Photo/Eric Gay
Once almost forgotten, Texas' presidential primary took on a starring role Tuesday as Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton fought for victory in this usually Republican state.

Texans didn't wait until Election Day to head to the polls in large numbers. An estimated 2 million people showed up during two weeks of early voting - about 60 percent of the overall number state officials expected to vote in both party primaries - and they overwhelmingly cast ballots in Democratic races.

"The eyes of the nation will be on the Democratic primary in Texas, as we cast votes and attend precinct conventions that could determine who will be the next president of the United States," said state party chairman Boyd Richie.

Republicans John McCain, Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul campaigned in the state, too, though most voter interest was geared toward the closer Democratic presidential contest. Texas will send 140 delegates to the national GOP convention, almost all awarded based on the primary vote.

In a more complex system, nicknamed the "Texas Two-step," Democrats have 228 delegates to dole out based mostly on primary vote results and a series of caucuses that began with precinct conventions after the polls closed Tuesday. Only voters who cast a ballot in the Democratic primary could take part in a caucus.

Both Democratic presidential campaigns spent weeks rounding up primary and caucus supporters. They used rallies, yard signs, celebrity endorsements and repeated automated calls to stir interest.

It was attention few Texans expected this political season. The Legislature declined last year to move up the state's primary to Feb. 5, leading to widespread speculation that the presidential nomination would be decided well before the race ever got to Texas.

Clinton banked on heavy support in predominantly Hispanic South Texas, while Obama looked to benefit from black voters in urban Houston and Dallas. But both candidates and their spouses and other surrogates hit all parts of the state.

At times the presidential race overshadowed other races on the Texas ballot.

Four Democrats competed for their party's nomination for U.S. Senate. The winner is likely to face Republican Sen. John Cornyn, who had nominal primary opposition.

In congressional races, 10 Houston-area Republicans battled to become the one to face U.S. Rep. Nick Lampson in the fall general election, while two well-funded Republicans in the San Antonio area competed to take on Democratic Rep. Ciro Rodriguez.

Several Democratic Texas House members closely tied to Republican Speaker Tom Craddick tried to fight off primary challenges from opponents who took issue with their alliance with Craddick. The speaker, criticized from some legislators in both parties as too iron-fisted, took control of the House in 2003.