COLUMBIA, S.C. — John McCain narrowly defeated Mike Huckabee in the Republican primary in South Carolina on Saturday.
With returns from 93 precincts counted, McCain won about 33 percent of the vote and Huckabee had about 30 percent. Fred Thompson was in third place with 16 percent, after saying he needed a strong showing to sustain his candidacy. Another Republican, California Rep. Duncan Hunter, dropped out even before the votes were tallied.
McCain won 19 of the state's GOP delegates, and Huckabee won 5.
McCain called his victory evidence that his campaign "can carry right through" Florida into the giant round of caucuses and primaries on Feb. 5. "I know it's not easy," he told The Associated Press, "and we've got a long way to go."
South Carolina was where McCain's presidential prospects died eight years ago, and he savored the victory this time. "It just took us awhile, that's all," he said in the interview. "Eight years is not a long time."
Asked if he was now the front-runner for the GOP nomination, McCain demurred.
"I don't know," he said, "we like to run from behind."
Huckabee told his supporters there was still a long way to go in the race for the presidential nomination.
“This is not an event, it is a process," Hucakbee said, "and the process is far, far from over.”
Interviews with South Carolina voters leaving their polling places indicated that McCain, an Arizona senator, and Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, divided the Republican vote somewhat evenlyh. As was his custom, McCain won the votes of self-described independents.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney cruised to victory earlier in the day in the little-contested Nevada caucuses.
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No matter the state, the economy was the top issue. Republicans in Nevada and South Carolina cited immigration as their second most-important concern.
South Carolina's primary has gone to the party's eventual nominee every four years since 1980.
That made it a magnet for Thompson, who staked his candidacy on a strong showing, as well as for Romney, McCain and Huckabee.
McCain, a former Vietnam prisoner of war, appealed to a large population of military veterans in South Carolina, and stressed his determination to rein in federal spending as he worked to avenge a bitter defeat in the 2000 primary.
Huckabee reached out to evangelical Christian voters, hoping to rebound from a string of disappointing showings since his victory in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses.
In South Carolina, the economy and immigration were cited as top issues, with more than half the voters saying illegal immigrants should be deported. Conservatives and white evangelical voters turned out in heavy numbers, according to the polling place interviews.
Survey data in both states were from polls conducted for The Associated Press and the television networks by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International.
South Carolina primary voters coped with equipment difficulty and bad weather. Election officials in the area around Myrtle Beach brought out paper ballots after some electronic voting machines failed to work properly.
A State Election Commission spokesman said some of the machines were not properly tested. He said a final step that resets the machine for voting wasn't done, and that prevented them from starting up.
Snow fell in the northern part of the state, which has little snow removal equipment.
"Our voters are committed," Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, said as he huddled under an umbrella to shake hands with voters in suburban Columbia. "We'll find out if they're committed enough to brave the elements."
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