WASHINGTON — In a year in which the oft-heard slogan has been “change” it was the two battle-scarred old political pros, Sens. John McCain and Hillary Clinton, who emerged as winners in Saturday’s most meaningful contests, the South Carolina Republican primary and the Democrats’ Nevada caucuses.
McCain’s win was narrow but dramatic; Clinton’s was quite muddled, with Sen. Barack Obama winning 13 delegates to 12 for her.
Clinton won the “delegate equivalent total” reported by major news organizations, with 51 percent.
The more straightforward voting process was in South Carolina, where Republicans voted in a traditional primary election.
McCain won a third of the 407,000 votes cast, with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee about 13,000 votes behind.
Alluding to his loss to George W. Bush in the South Carolina primary eight years ago, McCain told a jubilant crowd in Charleston, S.C., “You know, it took us a while, but what’s eight years among friends?”
Later in his victory speech he turned somber, telling the crowd, “I’ve served my country all my adult life and I am prepared for the high office I seek. I asked South Carolina to help give me the opportunity to serve this country I love a little while longer. You have done that, and I will never forget it.”
Agonizing defeat for Huckabee
After his agonizing loss, Huckabee told his supporters, “We got awful close.”
“Politics, particularly this year more than perhaps any other, is not an event, it is a process and the process is far, far from over,” he said.
“Tonight is not a time to start asking, ‘What if?’ It is a time to start talking about, ‘What now?’”
Huckabee did demonstrate great strength among the most loyal GOP voters.
In the most Republican county in the state, Pickens County in “Up Country” South Carolina, where President Bush won 73 percent of the vote in the 2004 election, Huckabee beat McCain by 10 percentage points.
But in the state’s second-most Republican county, Lexington, McCain edged Huckabee by fewer than 2,000 votes.
McCain’s bastion was Charleston County, where he took 44 percent of the votes to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s 19 percent and Huckabee’s 16 percent.
In the state’s biggest county in terms of total votes cast, Greenville County, Huckabee was the winner with 29 percent.
McCain, 71, outperformed Huckabee among voters 65 and over, winning 40 percent of them to Huckabee’s 23 percent.
Born-again or evangelical Christians made up about three-fifths of the GOP electorate and Huckabee, a Baptist preacher, got 40 percent of them, with McCain drawing about one out of four of evangelical voters.
The presence of former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson on the ballot may have siphoned some support from fellow Southerner Huckabee.
Depressed GOP turnout
Total voter turnout in the GOP contest in South Carolina was more than 400,000, lagging behind the 573,000 votes cast eight years ago when Bush triumphed over McCain.
After unimpressive GOP turnouts so far this year in Iowa, New Hampshire and Michigan, the GOP total vote in South Carolina was another worrisome sign for Republican strategists as they look to November.
In the Nevada Republican caucuses, which used a straw poll tally, nearly 45,000 people voted.
Romney won with 51 percent, while Rep. Ron Paul placed second with 6,000 votes, or 14 percent.
But it was South Carolina that had been the pivotal battleground of the GOP campaign for the last 10 days and McCain’s triumph — coming on the heels of his victory in the New Hampshire primary — was a sign that although only a minority of Republican voters are backing him, he still appears to be stronger than any other GOP contender.
The next contest is in Florida on Jan. 29, where McCain, Romney and Huckabee will joust with former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who has campaigned in that state almost exclusively for the past several weeks.
Meanwhile, Nevada Democrats used caucuses and ended up with Obama and Clinton camps in a tussle over who really won more delegates.
Obama team claims victory
Despite the backing of a major labor union, the Culinary Workers, Obama lost in the “delegate equivalent” tally to Clinton, although his strategist David Axelrod said, “We won more delegates in Nevada today than the Clinton campaign.”
He cited Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson as having said earlier this week, “It’s all about delegates; that’s all that counts.”
Axelrod said Obama had won 13 delegates in Iowa and Clinton 12.
But Clinton’s campaign chairman, Terry McAuliffe, said, “This is a huge win for us. More than 65 percent of the Hispanic vote went for Hillary Clinton.”
McAuliffe had put his finger on what may be shaping up as a schism in the Democratic electorate, with most black voters preferring Obama and most Latinos backing Clinton.
Nevada was the first test this year of this demographic split, since the black population of New Hampshire and Iowa, the previous contests, is minuscule.
Will demographic split develop?
This Latino-black division, if it holds true in states such as New Jersey and California with large Latino and black populations that vote on Feb. 5, could be a decisive factor in the battle for the nomination.
Interviews with Democratic caucus-goers in Nevada indicated that an estimated 15 percent of them were Latino; Clinton won two-thirds of them.
Obama, on the other hand, got an estimated four-fifths of black voters, who comprised 15 percent of the Nevada Democratic electorate.
Looking toward the California primary on Feb. 5, where the most delegates are at stake, an estimated 20 percent of the 2004 electorate was Latino, compared to 6 percent black.
One-third of California’s Latinos voted for Bush in 2004, according to exit poll interviews.
There was also a gender gap that may be significant in the contests ahead: Women made up an estimated 60 percent of the electorate and Clinton triumphed among them, getting 51 percent to Obama 38 percent.
This female-predominant electorate is identical to that seen in the New Hampshire, where nearly 60 percent of the voters were women; Clinton bested Obama among them by 12 percentage points.
Left in the Nevada dust was former Sen. John Edwards.
His campaign spokesman, Chris Kofinis said, “We’re going into South Carolina … where we feel very confident and optimistic about where we’re going to place, and going all the way to the convention.”
What's ahead for Edwards?
Asked by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews whether Edwards would win the South Carolina Democratic primary next Saturday, Kofinis said, “I think we’ll finish very well.”
Back on the eve of the Jan. 8 New Hampshire primary, which Clinton won, Edwards strategist Joe Trippi had argued that Edwards “can win South Carolina.”
But now, if Edwards is to keep his campaign breathing, it seems that he has no choice but to win South Carolina, a state he won four years ago in his struggle with John Kerry for the nomination.
As she had in the New Hampshire primary last week, Clinton performed far better than Obama did among lower-income people, winning 50 percent of them to Obama’s 38 percent.
The populist, anti-corporate rhetoric dished out by Edwards drew only 8 percent of such lower-income voters in Nevada.
Just two days before the Nevada contest, the Clinton campaign had been bad-mouthing the caucus process in that state as skewed toward Obama.
“The current system … inhibits some shift workers from being able to participate, while allowing others to do so,” said a Clinton statement, calling "unfair" the placement of nine caucus sites established along the Las Vegas Strip for the convenience of the culinary workers.