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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."