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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.

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But many religious conservatives – including the state's 700,000 Southern Baptists – remained uncomfortable with Romney's Mormon faith. By last week he had more or less ceded the state. He pulled most of his advertising and left for Nevada, a state founded by Mormons, with a history of electing them.

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Thompson threw all his resources at South Carolina after his sixth-place finish in New Hampshire on Jan. 8, giving every appearance of a last stand. Analysts saw the Palmetto State as a must-win for the television actor and former senator, who played up his Southern roots and draped the airwaves with ads proclaiming his toughness on illegal immigration and terrorism.

An endorsement from an influential antiabortion group, South Carolina Citizens for Life, helped. But his support eroded in recent weeks as Huckabee and McCain surged. In a speech to supporters in Columbia Saturday night, Thompson gave no indication of whether he planned to stay in the race.

Giuliani, who never contested South Carolina, has been campaigning almost exclusively in delegate-rich Florida, home to not a few New York retirees. He is betting that a win there and disarray in the Republican field will bounce him to a decisive streak of victories on Feb. 5, when New York, California, and some 20 other states vote.

In Nevada, where some 45,000 voted in the GOP caucuses Saturday, Romney benefited from a business-minded electorate and a large concentration of Mormons. Mormons represent just 7 percent of the population, but made up a quarter of GOP caucus-goers, according to exit polls. The Nevada contest does not bind delegates to winning candidates, whereas as South Carolina's does.

The races Saturday continued a gradual winnowing of the GOP field. Rep. Duncan Hunter, the California Republican best known for his bill to create a Mexican border fence, announced Saturday that he was dropping out of the race.

The South Carolina contest elicited strong feelings in some voters, though several interviewed at the polls Saturday said they made a final choice in just the last few days.

"McCain's ready to go from day one," Tom Faber, a physician, said after voting at an elementary school in Blythewood, a rural town 20 miles north of Columbia. "He knows where he stands, and he's pretty much the only guy with any experience to speak of with the military. I'm just tired of the know-nothing approach to leadership."

Tony Vasquez, a civilian weapons repairman at nearby Fort Jackson, an Army training base, said he believed Romney, with his business background, was best able to "wade through the quagmire up in D.C." and fix Social Security and Medicare.

Huckabee was somewhere near the bottom of his list. "He's got a commercial where he says, 'I won't allow politics to interfere with moral principles,'" he said. "That says to me the man doesn't know how to separate church and state."

But Huckabee's declarations of faith won him Richard Watkins's vote.

"I don't like the liberal thinking that somehow Christians need to be on the defensive," said Mr. Watkins, a retired engineer and self-described Evangelical. "This country needs to get back its fundamentals again."

• Staff writer Ben Arnoldy contributed to this report from Las Vegas.

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