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With South Carolina win, McCain is front-runner again.

Loss is major setback for Huckabee. Romney remains contender with win in Nevada.

By Ariel SabarStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 20, 2008

Charleston: Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain gives thumbs-up to the crowd during his election night rally at The Citadel. Sen. McCain won the South Carolina primary on Saturday, a key victory in a conservative stronghold in the race for the GOP nomination.

steven senne/AP

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Columbia, S.C.

Sen. John McCain won the South Carolina primary Saturday, a pivotal victory in a conservative stronghold that makes him the man to beat as the race for the GOP nomination moves to Florida and a raft of other large states.

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The victory is likely to mute questions about Senator McCain's support among traditional Republicans and conservatives, and comes eight years after his bitter defeat to George W. Bush here in 2000.

"You know, it took us a while," McCain quipped to jubilant supporters at a victory celebration in Charleston, S.C. "But what's eight years among friends?"

Analysts said the outcome in this deeply religious state is a major setback for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist minister who has been unable to replicate his Jan. 3 victory in the Iowa caucuses. With all but a few precincts reporting, McCain won 33 percent of the vote here, and Mr. Huckabee, 30 percent. Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney were virtually tied for a distant third.

The evangelical Christians and social conservatives who united behind Bush in 2000 were deeply divided this time around, splitting their votes among a number of candidates as national security and the economy vied with social issues among voters' priorities.

"This was a devastating defeat for Governor Huckabee," says Jeffrey Berry, a political scientist at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. "He needed this win to demonstrate that Iowa was not a fluke and that he is still a serious candidate."

Analysts said that McCain has enough momentum now from victories in New Hampshire and South Carolina to make Florida a must-win for Rudolph Giuliani, who did not run a serious campaign in the early-primary states. If Mr. Giuliani loses Florida, they said, the GOP field will have narrowed to McCain and Mr. Romney.

Romney followed his victory in Michigan Tuesday with an easy win Saturday in the lightly contested Nevada caucuses, making him and McCain the only candidates to claim more than one state.

Nevada sends 34 delegates to the national convention, compared with South Carolina's 24. But except for Romney and US Rep. Ron Paul (R) of Texas, Republicans largely ignored the Nevada contest, the first in a major Western state. Nevada is a newcomer to the club of early voting states and its caucus fell on the same day as South Carolina's, viewed as more significant because of its nearly three-decade history as a "kingmaker" for GOP presidential hopefuls.

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