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McCain gains edge with win; Clinton prevails in Nevada

The South Carolina victory, with the help of independent voters, exorcises the senator's bitter 2000 loss.

January 20, 2008|Maeve Reston, Louise Roug and Stephen Braun | Times Staff Writers

CHARLESTON, S.C. — John McCain won a tight victory Saturday night over Mike Huckabee in South Carolina's Republican primary, gaining precious velocity and bragging rights as the leader in the party's presidential race.

McCain edged Huckabee, 33% to 30%, proving an ability to win in the conservative South and rebound in the state that crushed his presidential hopes eight years ago. Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney finished well below the two leaders, with Thompson eking a narrow third-place finish over Romney, 16% to 15%.

The Arizona senator's South Carolina triumph marked another comeback milestone in a campaign that had appeared all but terminal last summer, sunk in dismal poll numbers and bereft of cash. Coupled with Saturday night's performance, McCain's primary win in New Hampshire and strong showing last week in Michigan now make him the likely candidate to beat in Florida -- and, his aides hope, will propel a crucial surge in campaign donations.

"There are some tough contests ahead," McCain said during victory remarks at the Citadel in Charleston. But grinning after a long night of watching returns, he expressed confidence that "we are well on our way tonight. And I feel very good about our chances."

McCain's South Carolina showing exorcised his bitter loss here to George W. Bush in 2000 and showed how carefully McCain had laid groundwork to avoid a similar fate, tying into the state's elected establishment and reacting swiftly to counter negative media and mail hits.

"It took us awhile," McCain joked, betraying his long memory, "but what's eight years among friends?"

In the final days of this year's primary campaign, McCain again found himself targeted by political committees and direct-mail campaigns that questioned his opposition to abortion and even his ordeal as a prisoner during the Vietnam War.

But McCain was quick to parry the attacks with his own mailings and enlisted establishment surrogates like South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and Vietnam War hero Orson Swindle to vouch for him. And the assaults on McCain were blurred by a flurry of similar hits on Huckabee and Thompson.

Since 1980, South Carolina has been considered a reliable predictor of the Republican presidential nominee. But Saturday night the state provided little in the way of consensus.

According to exit polling, McCain voters followed a similar pattern to those that emerged in New Hampshire and Michigan: He won strongly among moderate Republicans, independents and military-aligned voters. Former Arkansas Gov. Huckabee's power base was among religious and social conservatives. The exit polls were conducted for the Associated Press and television networks by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International.

Under South Carolina's primary system, independents and Democrats were allowed to vote in the GOP race -- just as independents and Republicans will be allowed to do in Saturday's Democratic primary.

Normally, the Republican winner-take-all primary would have provided 44 delegates divided between the state winner and those who won each of the state's six congressional districts. But the Republican National Committee voted to strip the state of half of its delegates because the primary was moved up before Feb. 5.

In one encouraging sign for the looming Florida contest Jan. 29, McCain scored well among South Carolina's non-native voters, winning handily among 31%, compared with Huckabee's 24%. That trend could be helpful to McCain in Florida, where there are large concentrations of GOP retirees and other transplants on the Gulf Coast and in the center of the state.

Graham, McCain's campaign co-chair in the state, said the Arizona senator should now have "unstoppable momentum" heading into the Florida primary.

McCain acknowledged earlier Saturday that he was already looking ahead to Florida and beyond to the Feb. 5 Super Tuesday states. "Florida's a big state," he said. "The north is different from the south, even the middle on both coasts are different, so there's a lot of work to be done." He added: "So far we're doing well in the polls in Florida -- I guess we have a slight lead, but it's all bunched up."

McCain acknowledged he was hoping to target retired military families in the northern part of Florida and woo a large cohort of East Coast transplants and retirees in the middle of the state -- populations also being relentlessly targeted by former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.

"We'll just do what we did in New Hampshire, and do what I hope we did here, and that's out-campaign them," McCain said.

Another sign of hope for McCain was his slightly improved performance among conservative voters in central South Carolina and in the hilly northern Piedmont region, where he was trounced by Bush in 2000.

"At least upstate he broke even," said Clemson University political science professor J. David Woodard, who helps direct the school's influential Palmetto Poll. "That's all he had to do so he could win in other places."

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