With South Carolina win, McCain is front-runner again.
Loss is major setback for Huckabee. Romney remains contender with win in Nevada.
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Huckabee's defeat Saturday in South Carolina – friendly territory for a Southerner and former pastor – raises questions about his future in a string of primaries where evangelicals hold less sway, analysts say. "If he can't win on his own turf, what chance does he have nationally?" asks Thomas Whalen, a political historian at Boston University.Skip to next paragraph
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Huckabee, however, showed no sign of relenting Saturday. "The path to the White House is not ending here tonight," he said in a concession speech in Columbia. "Tomorrow, after a little bit of sleep, we wake up to fight the battle yet again."
A day of rain and snow slowed turnout here, with roughly 20 percent of 2.2 million registered voters casting ballots, down from some 27 percent in 2000.
The race in South Carolina had been unusually fluid for most of last year, with Giuliani, Romney, Thompson, Huckabee and McCain each taking turns as front-runner in the polls. The primary was one of the race's most closely watched: No GOP candidate since 1980 has won the national nomination without a victory in this first-in-the-South primary.
For a long time, voters here couldn't seem to make up their mind. The field lacked a perfect fit for the evangelical or born-again Christians who made up some 60 percent of GOP voters Saturday, and rifts between religious and fiscal conservatives scattered support among a half dozen candidates.
It was only after Huckabee's victory in Iowa and McCain's in New Hampshire that support coalesced around the two. In recent polls, they were neck and neck.
Huckabee campaigned openly here as a devout Christian. He proposed banning abortion and gay marriage with amendments that he said would align the Constitution with "God's standards." He visited Christian colleges, spoke about his journey of faith, and urged local pastors to get out the vote.
He hardened his line on illegal immigration, an issue voters rated in recent polls as second only to the economy. And he waded into the racially-charged debate over the Confederate flag that flies on the State House grounds, telling supporters in Myrtle Beach Thursday that people outside the state should stay out of the dispute.
McCain's campaign was derailed in South Carolina in 2000, and he infused his candidacy this time with lessons from that defeat. He built early ties with religious leaders and formed a "Truth Squad" of prominent state officials to deflect the often-anonymous smears that blindsided him in 2000.
Though he underscored his antiabortion record and won endorsements from leading conservatives, his chief appeal was with moderates fond of his independent streak and military service and more concerned about national security than social issues. No longer the outsider he was in 2000, he lined up support from much of the political establishment that had backed Bush.
On Thursday, he sought to address growing concerns about the economy with a proposal to cut the corporate income tax rate and slash federal spending.
McCain was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, and veterans – some 413,000 of them call South Carolina home – were a fixture at his campaign events. With the drumbeat of terrorism headlines since the 9/11 attacks, McCain was hoping to win more veterans than in 2000, when he and Bush split their vote.
According to surveys of voters leaving the polls Saturday, McCain lost to Huckabee among self-described evangelicals and born-again Christians, but by a smaller margin than in the race with Bush in 2000. McCain tied Huckabee among self-identified Republicans, and routed him among moderates, non-Evangelicals, and those looking for experience, according to the exit polls.
Romney held a fleeting lead in the polls here in the fall, benefiting from his image as a family man and an endorsement from Bob Jones III, chancellor of the evangelical Bob Jones University in Greenville.