U.S. voters are taking a major step toward choosing the next president Tuesday with primary or caucus contests in 24 states. Senator John McCain has surged into an early lead in states holding Republican contests, while Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama remain in a close struggle for party nominating delegates among Democrats. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has the latest from Washington.

In the Democratic race, Clinton was projected to win her home state of New York and Massachusetts. That followed earlier victories in Oklahoma, Tennessee and Arkansas.

Clinton won in Massachusetts despite the fact that senators from that state, Ted Kennedy and John Kerry, had endorsed Barack Obama.

Obama won an easy victory in his home state of Illinois and defeated Clinton in Delaware and Georgia.

Both campaigns were looking to later results from the California primary as a crucial showdown in their battle for the Democratic nomination.

Earlier Tuesday, Obama said many of the 22 Democratic contests around the country appeared to be very close.

"I think everybody is flying blind at this point," he said.

Clinton got some last minute help from celebrities like actor Jack Nicholson, who recorded a phone message urging voters to support her.

"She never gives up. She never gives in and she is battle-tested," he said.

In the Republican race, it is shaping up as a big night for Senator John McCain of Arizona.

McCain won early victories in Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Delaware and Illinois.

McCain is hoping to solidify his lead as the Republican frontrunner and boost his support among conservative Republican voters.

 "The appeal is that I am a conservative, examine my record. By any gauge, cutting taxes, reducing spending, national defense, national security," he said.

McCain's main rival, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, won his home state and hoped for a surprise showing later in California.

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee had a good showing in the south, winning in his home state as well as Alabama and West Virginia.

Exit polls conducted by news organizations found voters in both parties most concerned about the U.S. economy. Republicans were also concerned about illegal immigration while Democrats focused on the war in Iraq.

The winners of the primaries and caucuses are awarded delegates pledged to support them at the national nominating conventions for both parties that will take place in late August and early September.