By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 20, 2008
COLUMBIA, S.C., Jan. 19 -- Sen. John McCain conquered the South Carolina Republican primary Saturday, giving his once-embattled presidential campaign another significant boost and helping to wipe away bitter memories of his defeat here eight years ago.
McCain (Ariz.) opened his victory speech in Charleston by alluding to that loss. "It took us a while, but what's eight years among friends?" he said, a big smile crossing his face.
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, looking for a victory in the first Southern primary of the 2008 nomination battle, finished second to McCain, but not getting a victory in this conservative state is a blow to his underdog hopes of winning the GOP nomination.
Earlier in the day in Nevada, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney easily won the Republican caucuses. It was his second victory in five days and kept alive a candidacy that was on life support after early losses in Iowa and New Hampshire. Romney finished fourth in South Carolina.
The candidates move on to Florida, whose Jan. 29 primary could prove pivotal in shaping what has been a confused and volatile Republican nomination battle. McCain has the opportunity to take control of the Republican race: A victory there would establish him as the clear front-runner heading toward Super Tuesday on Feb. 5, when nearly two dozen states will hold contests.
McCain won South Carolina with about 33 percent of the vote, to Huckabee's 30 percent. With more than 90 percent of precincts reporting, former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.) was third with 16 percent, and Romney was fourth with 15 percent. Turnout was well below that of the 2000 GOP primary, when more than 550,000 participated.
McCain's victory in South Carolina was especially sweet after his experience in 2000, when he was soundly defeated by then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush after a nasty contest marred by negative campaigning and scurrilous underground attacks aimed at the senator.
"I am aware that for the last 28 years, the winner of the South Carolina primary has been the nominee of our party," McCain said. "We have a ways to go, of course. There are some tough contests ahead, starting tomorrow in the state of Florida. But, my friends, we are well on our way tonight. And I feel very good about our chances."
In a concession speech in Columbia, Huckabee praised McCain for running a "civil and good and decent campaign." Noting that he had hoped for a victory Saturday, he sought to lift up his disappointed supporters by saying, "The path to the White House is not ending here tonight. We're resetting the clock. . . . We have learned, and tomorrow, after a little bit of sleep, we wake up to fight the battle yet again and yet again."
Romney began his day in Nevada and was already in Florida as the returns from South Carolina were being counted. "This is as good as it gets," he told supporters in Jacksonville. "We won that one handily today," he added. "I'm really pleased."
Seeking to maximize victories in two Western states -- Nevada and Wyoming -- where there was minimal competition among Republican candidates, Romney said: "This is a campaign that does intend to participate across the country. We're not concentrating on just one region or a few states."
Thompson delivered a speech that baffled even some supporters. Normally laid-back, he thundered on for 10 minutes in language that seemed to point to a withdrawal statement. But he abruptly ended the speech with "God bless you!" and walked off the stage.
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.
About four in 10 voters said they were most concerned about finding a candidate who "shares my values," and among that constituency, Huckabee dominated. But McCain was the overwhelming choice of voters who said they most prize experience in a candidate. McCain also had the advantage among those voters who said what matters most to them is a candidate who says what he believes.
McCain had a big advantage among those who cited Iraq as the major issue, and he also was winning among those South Carolina voters who have served in the military. Veterans made up about a quarter of the electorate on Saturday.
Two-thirds of voters said they have a positive impression of President Bush, and they split evenly between McCain and Huckabee. Among those with a negative view of Bush, McCain was the clear favorite.
Romney swept the Nevada caucuses, winning just over 50 percent of the vote. Turnout was considered low.
The voting on Saturday claimed one victim. Rep. Duncan Hunter (Calif.) quit the race after his seventh-place finish in Nevada.
Staff writers Perry Bacon Jr., Juliet Eilperin and Michael D. Shear, polling director Jon Cohen and polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.