Sen. John McCain savored his victory Saturday in the state that derailed his 2000 presidential bid. “We are on our way tonight,” he declared as he set his sights on Florida, the next crucial contest. “I feel very good about our chances.”
McCain celebrated his close victory over former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in a state that has been an essential step over the last two decades toward winning the GOP presidential nomination.
“Thank you, my friends, and thank you, South Carolina, for bringing us across the finish line first in the first-in-the-South primary. It took us a while. But what’s eight years among friends?” McCain told a boisterous crowd of supporters on the campus of The Citadel. He stood on the stage with his wife, Cindy, as the crowd chanted, “Mac is back, Mac is back.”
“I’m very grateful,” McCain said in a separate interview with The Associated Press. “It just took us awhile, that’s all. Eight years is not a long time.”
Still, he said in the interview, “We’ve got a long way to go.” He said the South Carolina victory was key, giving him “a very important progress that we can carry right through Florida and into February 5th.” Florida votes on Jan. 29, followed by contests in 22 states on February 5.
McCain’s victory, his second after winning the New Hampshire primary, helped him reclaim momentum that had been slowed by his second-place finish in Michigan to Mitt Romney.
His 2000 quest for the presidency ended here with a victory by then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush after a McCain victory in New Hampshire.
Asked in the AP interview 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.” But he expressed optimism. “I’m very confident that we’ll win in Florida,” he said.
“I am aware that for the last 28 years, the winner of the South Carolina primary has been the nominee of our party,” he told supporters. “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.”
McCain flies to Florida on Sunday.