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McCain Beats Huckabee in S. Carolina; Clinton and Romney Win in Nevada
There has been speculation for some time that Thompson would quit the race if he did not finish strongly in South Carolina, with the expectation that he would endorse McCain, whom he supported eight years ago.
As McCain noted, South Carolina has proven to be the decisive contest in Republican nomination battles dating to 1980, but strategists said the muddled nature of this year's race may alter that role. "South Carolina is now playing the role the Iowa caucus used to play: winnowing the field rather than telling us the nominee," said Republican pollster Whit Ayres.
The Florida primary could become a showdown between McCain and Romney. But it also will include what could be a last stand for former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who has finished far back in the early contests but has staked his hopes for the nomination on a victory in Florida. While McCain, Huckabee, Romney and Thompson competed elsewhere, Giuliani has been camped out in the Sunshine State.
McCain's challenge going forward will be to demonstrate his ability to consolidate Republican voters, who split their votes evenly between him and Huckabee. The victory here will help his money-starved campaign raise additional funds to offset Romney's ability to spend from his personal fortune in the weeks ahead.
Romney's aim will be to prevent McCain from attracting Republican voters who may see him as a potentially stronger candidate in the general election because of his potential appeal to independent voters.
Huckabee faces an uphill fight. Despite a strong second in South Carolina, he has not yet shown that he can enlarge his appeal significantly beyond the core support of Christian conservatives. But if Thompson is an even more diminished force, Huckabee could be a factor in Southern contests on Feb. 5.
The primary was marked by bad weather in many parts of the state, as a winter storm brought rain and cold temperatures overnight. The worst of it was in upstate areas crucial to Huckabee's chances, but his advisers said they did not believe conditions were severe enough to have cost them votes.
Huckabee was winning counties around Greenville and Spartanburg, areas with heavy concentrations of Christian conservatives. But his margins were reduced by a relatively strong showing by Thompson.
McCain, meanwhile, rolled up strong margins in his best areas, the more moderate, rapid-growth counties running along the coast that have filled up with retirees over the past two decades.
South Carolina's electorate was more Republican and more conservative than those in the primaries in Michigan or New Hampshire, according to exit polls conducted by the National Election Pool, a consortium of news organizations.
Four in five voters in the primary identified themselves as Republicans, and the exit polls showed McCain and Huckabee running even among them. Among the roughly one-fifth of voters who identified themselves as independents, McCain enjoyed a decisive advantage.
White evangelical Christians made up just over half the electorate, and Huckabee carried them by about 13 percentage points. Among the rest of the electorate, McCain led by more than 20 points.