By Dan Balz and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 19, 2008
COLUMBIA, S.C., Jan. 18 -- Sen. John McCain and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee dueled on the final day of campaigning before Saturday's South Carolina presidential primary, with each of the front-runners seeking to avoid a costly defeat that could set back his hopes of winning the Republican nomination.
The last round of polls showed McCain (Ariz.), with support from South Carolina's large veteran population, holding a narrow lead in the state that handed him the most painful defeat of his 2000 campaign. Huckabee is counting on strong turnout from a large bloc of Christian conservatives to help him overtake the senator in the first Southern primary of the year.
Former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.) and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney were in a race for third. Thompson badly needs a strong showing to keep his White House bid viable. Romney, who won the Michigan primary Tuesday, spent Friday in Nevada, where he is looking to win Saturday's GOP caucuses.
South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) called the primary a genuine contest and said the substantial number of undecided voters reflects uncertainty and introspection among Republicans, who are still absorbing the losses of the 2006 midterm elections and are deeply disaffected about Washington.
"It's not about the merits or demerits of any candidate," Sanford said. "You have a really anxious Republican electorate, based on what they see transpiring in Washington." He added: "They're trying to really look hard and make sure they don't have more of the same in Washington as a consequence of what they do."
South Carolina has historically played a pivotal role in the Republican nomination contest, and Saturday's winner is expected to receive a boost heading into the next critical vote -- in Florida on Jan. 29. But Sanford and others said the outcome here may signal continued uncertainty and division ahead.
Strategists said a victory by McCain could establish him as the closest thing to a front-runner the Republicans have had this year, but they noted that he would need to follow that with a win in Florida to secure the favorite position. Huckabee, they said, would get a boost by winning but would still need to demonstrate an ability to draw support substantially beyond conservative Christians.
The campaign here has been shadowed by attacks aimed at McCain by outside groups backing Huckabee. To counter the criticism, McCain produced an Internet ad using video of Huckabee praising him.
But the tone of the race bears no resemblance to the bitterness of the contest between McCain and then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush in 2000. "This campaign has been pale compared to others I've seen," said Katon Dawson, the state Republican Party chairman.
Weather forecasts for Saturday called for snow and wintry conditions in parts of the state, which could affect turnout and alter the makeup of the electorate.
As they made their final appeals on Friday, all the candidates were beginning to point toward the upcoming 10-day race in Florida. Ahead of that primary, former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who has finished poorly in all the contests so far, has parked himself in Florida and declared that it will be where he wins his first victory of the year.
Candidate ads clogged South Carolina television screens during local newscasts Friday, as they have all week. McCain stressed his long record of service to the nation as a Navy pilot and a senator, and said he is most ready to be commander in chief. Huckabee offered himself as a "Christian leader" and an "authentic conservative." Thompson underscored his conservative credentials and his endorsement from South Carolina Citizens for Life, an antiabortion group. Romney emphasized his business credentials, which he said give him the expertise to "turn around Washington."
McCain campaigned along the coast, the more moderate area of this conservative state and the place he counts as his geographical base. In the final hours before the polls open, he focused on national security to generate last-minute support for his candidacy.
"The greatest challenge this nation faces is this implacable enemy," he told an audience of a couple hundred supporters in Florence. "When it comes to Osama bin Laden," he vowed, "I will follow him to the gates of hell if necessary, but I will get Osama bin Laden, and I will bring him to justice."
Huckabee spent a good part of his day in the upstate region, home to many evangelical voters. Seeking to draw a contrast with both McCain and Thompson, he echoed a message that helped Romney win Michigan on Tuesday, asserting that he has the outsider credentials to fix a broken Washington.
"Folks who have spent a lifetime in Washington, you've sent them to get a job done and they haven't done it," he told a crowd at Wofford College in Spartanburg.
After raising the issue of the Confederate flag during several appearances Thursday, saying it is up to South Carolina residents to decide whether it can remain flying on the grounds of the State Capitol, Huckabee did not emphasize the issue Friday. Nonetheless, a pro-flag group called Americans for the Preservation of American Culture was airing radio ads promoting Huckabee and criticizing McCain and Romney.
Huckabee returned to economic themes on Friday, keyed to Bush's proposed stimulus package. He pointed out that, long before other candidates, he had warned about the economic problems facing middle-class Americans. "My point is they should have been talking about it months ago," he said.
Romney's trip to Nevada was an attempt to divert attention from his expected loss in South Carolina. He campaigned before a particularly raucous crowd in Reno, drawing hoots of approval when he declared, "Illegal immigration is a drag, and we've got to stop it."
Romney aides said they are already looking past both states to Florida.
A Mason-Dixon poll for MSNBC and McClatchy newspapers underscored the competing constituencies attracted by McCain and Huckabee. McCain held a narrow lead among men, while he and Huckabee were tied among women. McCain did better with voters older than 50, and Huckabee had an advantage among those younger than 50.
The two front-runners were about even among self-identified Republicans, while McCain held a substantial lead among independents and Democrats.
The state's elected leadership has splintered over their choices. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham is behind McCain, and Sen. Jim DeMint has endorsed Romney. Former governor David Beasley backs Huckabee, while Gov. Sanford, a McCain supporter in 2000, has not endorsed anyone.
McCain wooed the GOP establishment in the early stages of the race, to some success. He has campaigned this week with South Carolina House Speaker Bobby Harrell and state Attorney General Henry McMaster.
"I want to be judged here by the friends here on this stage," McCain said at the rally in Florence. "I want you to judge me by my friends."
But Republican pollster Whit Ayres, who is neutral in the contest, said: "There is no way to make a credible case that Senator McCain has coalesced the establishment. The establishment is as split as the rest of the party."
Staff writers Perry Bacon Jr. with Huckabee and Michael D. Shear with Romney in Nevada contributed to this report. Eilperin reported from the McCain campaign.