John McCain claimed a sweet South Carolina victory that eluded him in 2000 — and, if history is a guide, may have set himself on course to become the GOP presidential nominee.
No Republican since 1980 has won the party’s nod without a triumph in the first-in-the-South primary.
“It just took us a while. That’s all. Eight years is not a long time,” McCain said in an Associated Press interview. He added: “It sure was nice to have a lot of our old friends be happier that we’ve won.”
Still, for all the talk of the past, McCain certainly doesn’t have the nomination locked up and this year’s race is far from conventional.
“I know it’s not easy and we’ve got a long way to go,” he acknowledged.
Indeed, the wide-open contest now turns to Florida, where over the next 10 days no less than three of his rivals — and perhaps more — will seek to knock him off his momentum-fueled pedestal. The extraordinarily diverse state votes Jan. 29 and offers a winner-take-all cache of 57 delegates. More than 20 states vote thereafter on Feb. 5, and the race may not be determined even then.
“We’re waiting for you,” said Rudy Giuliani, sending notice to his rivals that he’s lying in wait in Florida. The former New York mayor has yet to win a contest and has pinned his candidacy on the state.
All eyes on Florida
McCain, for his part, said: I’m very confident we’ll win in Florida.”
So appeared another candidate angling for that state.
“If you want the nomination and you want to win the presidency, you gotta get Florida,” Mitt Romney said, already in the state as he set the stakes and celebrated his win Saturday in barely contested Nevada. The former Massachusetts governor already had won Michigan, his native state, and largely overlooked Wyoming.
Two weeks into state-by-state voting, the GOP nomination remains up for grabs. Three candidates have won in the six states that have voted thus far.
South Carolina’s hard-fought GOP primary pitted Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and Iowa caucus winner, against McCain, the Arizona senator and New Hampshire primary victor enjoying a resurgence after his campaign nearly imploded six months ago. Each was out to prove he was more than a one-state wonder and looked for a much-needed Southern win to provide momentum heading into Florida.
McCain, who appeals to voters across the political spectrum, sought to erase his bitter shellacking in 2000 against establishment favorite George W. Bush.
Back then, McCain cruised into South Carolina fresh from a stunning New Hampshire win over Bush only to go down in bitter defeat. On TV, Bush allies vastly outspent the GOP underdog. Underground, McCain was assailed in negative telephone calls and a whisper campaign that spread rumors about him and his family.
A different strategy this time
Over the past few years, McCain tried to ensure none of that would occur again. He set up a deep South Carolina campaign organization. He courted the state’s GOP establishment and secured many of their endorsements. He also worked to repair a prickly relationship with Christian evangelicals.
His efforts paid off Saturday.
A survey of voters as they left polling stations for the Associated Press and the TV networks showed that people calling themselves Republicans, who dominated the South Carolina voting, were evenly divided between McCain and Huckabee. But McCain also won the backing of people who said they were independents and moderates.
Huckabee, a one-time Southern Baptist preacher who campaigned as a Christian leader, had a slight edge among the more than 70 percent of voters who called themselves conservative and among those calling themselves white evangelical and born-again Christian voters. But McCain thumped Huckabee in all other categories with more than triple his rival’s voters.
McCain, a 71-year-old four-term senator, also won among older voters and people chiefly looking for an experienced candidate.
A former Vietnam prisoner of war with decades of military experience, McCain hoped his argument that he is the most qualified to be commander in chief during wartime as well as his staunch support of the Iraq war would resonate with voters in the first contested Republican race since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
South Carolina is a state with a long military tradition, and McCain, to be sure, won among members of the military and veterans. He snared one-third of their votes to roughly one-quarter for Huckabee. Nonmilitary voters split their support about evenly between the two.
McCain also counted on migration shifts and demographic changes in South Carolina working to his advantage; South Carolina’s population rose by nearly 10 percent since the decade began, with many people settling along the coastal region that McCain won in 2000. Native South Carolinians only made up less than half of voters.
Do or die for Thompson?
Fred Thompson, the former Tennessee senator looking to turn around his campaign in South Carolina, suggested a poor outcome for him could mean the end of his bid. “We’ll see what the results are. I’ve always said I have to do very well here. There is no question about that,” he said earlier Saturday. Later, as it became clear he would not win the state, Thompson gave a speech that sounded a bit like a swan song — but stopped short of dropping out.
Romney ditched South Carolina on Thursday to campaign in Nevada, as it became increasingly clear that his multimillion-dollar, yearlong investment in the Southern state wouldn’t produce a first-place finish. As he traveled to Nevada, he argued that he was seeking the largest share of the state’s 31 delegates at stake. In contrast, South Carolina offered 24.
Indeed, Romney easily cruised to victory in the state’s caucuses; only he and libertarian-leaning Texas Rep. Ron Paul competed in the state. With his Nevada win, Romney extended his overall lead in the race for delegates to the GOP’s nominating convention this summer.
His Mormon faith proved beneficial in Nevada; Mormons represented roughly a quarter of those attending Nevada’s GOP caucuses, and virtually all of them were voting for Romney. Half of Romney’s votes came from Mormons. In contrast, skepticism about his Mormon faith in South Carolina’s Christian evangelical corridors proved difficult to overcome.
Romney was about even with Huckabee among Nevada’s white evangelical and born-again Christians, who made up about a fifth of the vote.