McCain hoping for S.C. win

January 10, 2008 12:47:18 PM PST
John McCain is hoping the South Carolina that votes next week will be a different South Carolina than the one that spoiled his presidential hopes eight years ago.

He has reason to hope: An influx of newcomers is just as Republican - but not necessarily as conservative - as native South Carolinians. The Arizona senator appeals not only to conservatives but also to party moderates and independents, groups that helped him win Tuesday's New Hampshire primary and become a serious contender in the contests beyond.

The "come heres" - or "come-yas," as natives call them - have swelled the retirement and resort communities along the state's coast. These transplants are more moderate on the conservative hot buttons of abortion and gay rights. Yet their devotion to the GOP and disdain for the Democrats is even more intense than the "been-here" Republicans, who often have personal and cultural ties to the old "Dixiecrat" wing of the Democratic Party.

The GOP didn't gain steam in South Carolina until the 1960s, when conservative Democrats left the party in droves against a backdrop of desegregation and the federal Voting Rights Act that gave black voters clout.

Within a decade, the GOP was bolstered by "come heres," who helped solidify the party's lock on power.

Republicans in this state hold their primary Jan. 19; Michigan goes before it, on Tuesday.

A new South Carolina poll released Thursday showed McCain got a bounce from his New Hampshire win; he now leads the field after trailing for months. The Fox News/Opinion Dynamics survey showed him with the support of 25 percent, while Mike Huckabee got 18 percent and Mitt Romney 17 percent.

In 2000, McCain was also riding high after a stunning win in New Hampshire when he cruised into South Carolina. But it was favorite George W. Bush who prevailed here, partly through strong support from Christian conservatives and establishment Republicans. McCain performed best along the coast in communities like Hilton Head Island and Myrtle Beach where the come heres are most numerous.

It was a bitter defeat for McCain. 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.

But that was eight years ago, and it's a different nomination fight than it was back then - wide-open, fractured and lacking a front-runner with the weight of the establishment behind him.

"Eight years is a long, long time in politics," McCain said Wednesday.

At least one thing, however, hasn't changed - and that could spell trouble for McCain.

Christian evangelicals, many of whom have never warmed to the senator, still hold much sway in the ultraconservative Upstate region; their favored candidate - Baptist preacher turned Arkansas politician Huckabee - is angling for a win. Immigration also could pose a problem for McCain, who backs providing millions of illegal immigrants an eventual path to citizenship.

This year, his backers have set up what they're calling a "truth squad" to counter negative campaigning in a state known for brass-knuckles politics. Said McCain: "I'm not sure the people of South Carolina would stand for it again."

Huckabee is seen as McCain's greatest threat now that Romney is weakened from two major losses and has pulled his advertising in South Carolina to focus more on must-win Michigan.

Fred Thompson, the former Tennessee senator, is struggling to mount a comeback in South Carolina, playing up his support for gun rights and his Southern roots.

But it's Huckabee and McCain who have momentum from respective wins in hotly contested Iowa and New Hampshire.

Christian evangelicals have a tense relationship with McCain. He disparaged their leaders in 2000, labeling some "agents of intolerance." Since then, he has sought to repair relations; for instance, speaking at the late Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in Virginia in 2006.

"There is a lot less negativity about him in the conservative religious community than in 2000," said James Guth, a political science professor at Furman University in Greenville, S.C.

McCain's aides don't pretend they can lock up the Christian evangelical vote. Rather, they are focused on appealing to voters across all parts of the party.

A factor McCain sees working for him is the race is the first contested GOP primary since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

McCain, a former Vietnam prisoner of war, argues that people in a state with a long military tradition, several bases and a large number of veterans could seek commander in chief qualities primarily in a candidate. He said of his decades of experience on military matters, "I certainly think it's helpful with a lot of South Carolinians."

Immigration remains a major issue and many Republicans are fired up over McCain's position. But the passions that the issue ignited have calmed some, and McCain has tempered his zeal for comprehensive reform with a "secure the borders first" pitch.

Through political turmoil last year, McCain backers argue that his biggest problem has been that South Carolina Republicans began to doubt that he could be elected.

"After New Hampshire, that's over," said Lindsey Graham, the senior South Carolina senator and close McCain confidant. "We're a viable campaign, and that's all we needed to prove to people."

--- Associated Press writers Libby Quaid and Stephen Ohlemacher in Washington, AP Religion Writer Eric Gorski and Jim Davenport in South Carolina contributed to this report.