Analysis: McCain, Huckabee seek momentum

January 19, 2008 5:03:55 PM PST
The South Carolina stakes for Republicans were enormous ? at least according to history. No Republican since 1980 has won the party's nomination without a South Carolina triumph.

That added drama to a hard-fought race between Mike Huckabee and John McCain, the two candidates locked in a close race.

South Carolina's first-in-the-South primary pitted Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and Iowa caucus winner, against McCain, the Arizona senator and New Hampshire primary victor. Each was out to prove he was more than a one-state wonder and looked for a much-needed South Carolina win to provide momentum.

Across the country, Mitt Romney's victory in barely contested Nevada gave him a boost in the delegate race.

Two weeks into state-by-state voting, the GOP nomination is anyone's to win and the potential for an extended primary fight looms large.

The results on opposite sides of the country promised to set up a showdown 10 days later in Florida, where rival Rudy Giuliani is lying in wait. Florida, which votes Jan. 29, is the former New York mayor's must-win state. No less than three serious GOP contenders ? and perhaps more ? will duke it out in the extraordinarily diverse state for 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.

In South Carolina, McCain, who appeals to voters across the political spectrum, sought to erase his bitter shellacking in 2000 against George W. Bush and to prove this year that he could win in a state where only Republicans could cast ballots.

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 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.

Huckabee competed for a second victory fueled by fellow Christian evangelicals who, as in Iowa, make up a significant segment of GOP primary voters in South Carolina. As he did in Iowa, he spent much of the South Carolina campaign promoting his faith, running an ad offering himself as a "Christian leader."

In the final hours, Huckabee also made direct appeals to right-flank voters. He said the government should stay out of disputes over the Confederate flag in South Carolina. It's a symbol of racism to some and Southern pride to others, mainly hard-core conservatives.

Exit polls of voters in South Carolina showed that conservatives and white evangelical and born-again Christians were turning out heavily, and that Republican voters said a candidate who shares their values was most important. That all boded well for Huckabee, the one-time Southern Baptist preacher with solid social conservative credentials, and poorly for McCain, who has a rocky relationship with hard-right voters despite a right-leaning Senate voting record on issues they care most about.

Also troublesome for McCain: GOP voters ranked illegal immigration as their second-most important issue behind the economy. And, just over half said illegal immigrants should be deported. McCain has drawn fire from parts of his party for backing an eventual path to citizenship for millions of immigrants in the country illegally.

However, exit polls also showed that veterans were about a quarter of the overall vote, while people over the age of 50 made up over half of those who voted. Native South Carolinians were making up just less than half of voters.

McCain is a decorated veteran who is running for president on his military credentials. He also hoped that a population spurt that brought out-of-staters to the more moderate coastline would help him.

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.

For his part, Romney ditched South Carolina on Thursday to campaign in Nevada, as it became increasingly clear that his multimillion-dollar, yearlong investment in the 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, according to results from surveys of voters entering the caucuses. 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. The results were from a poll conducted for AP and the television networks by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International as voters entered 20 caucus sites in Nevada. The survey involved interviews with 571 GOP voters, and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 6 percentage points.