By MICHAEL COOPER and MICHAEL M. GRYNBAUM
CHARLESTON, S.C. — Senator John McCain staved off a spirited challenge by former Gov. Mike Huckabee to win the South Carolina primary on Saturday, exorcising the ghosts of the attack-filled primary here that derailed his presidential hopes eight years ago.
Mr. McCain’s victory here, on top of his win earlier this month in New Hampshire, capped a remarkable comeback for a campaign that was all but written off six months ago. In an unusually fluid Republican field, his campaign said it hoped the victory would give Mr. McCain a head of steam going into the Jan. 29 Florida primary and the nationwide series of nominating contests on Feb. 5.
“It took us a while, but what’s eight years among friends?” Mr. McCain said at a boisterous victory celebration that broke out into shouts of “Mac is back! Mac is back!”
Mr. McCain did best among voters who said experience was the most important quality in a candidate, among those who said the Iraq war and terrorism were their top concerns and among the state’s veterans, who made up a quarter of the vote. He ran about even with Mr. Huckabee, who pressed a populist message here, among the many voters who said their top concern in the election was the economy.
Mr. Huckabee’s loss in a southern state with a strong turnout of religious voters was a setback to his campaign as it heads toward potentially less hospitable states. Nearly 60 percent of the voters in South Carolina identified themselves in exit polls as evangelical Christians, a group that was heavily courted by Mr. Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor and Baptist preacher. And while Mr. Huckabee captured 4 in 10 of their votes, Mr. McCain also made inroads with the group, capturing more than a quarter of their vote.
With 97 percent of the precincts reporting, Mr. McCain, of Arizona, led with 33 percent of the vote, just ahead of Mr. Huckabee’s 30 percent.
Former Gov. Mitt Romney, who coasted to an easy victory earlier on Saturday in the Nevada caucuses, fell to fourth place behind Fred Thompson, the former senator of Tennessee.
A triumphant Mr. McCain greeted cheering supporters in Charleston, where he thanked South Carolina voters “for bringing us across the finish line first in the first-in-the-south primary.”
Still, Mr. McCain cautioned that his campaign “has a ways to go” and noted that he faces several “tough contests ahead.”
Mr. Huckabee, in his concession speech, also urged his supporters to look ahead to the next stage of the campaign.
“We’re not going to sit around and second guess,” he said, adding that he felt “a sense of just sheer joy that we got as far as we did when nobody thought it was possible for us to be in contention.”
In an apparent dig at Mr. Romney, whose attacks ads he has criticized, Mr. Huckabee said he “would rather be where I am and have done it with honor than have won with the dishonor of getting there by attacking somebody else.”
He ended his speech saying, “The path to the White House is not ending here tonight.”
With the Republican field split among three front-runners, each of whom has won at least one early contest, South Carolina’s primary is being closely watched for signs of how the candidates might fare as the race expands into the South.
Mr. Thompson, who has yet to win a primary or caucus, had hoped that a stronger showing in South Carolina could breathe some life into his flagging campaign.
Some observers had speculated that Mr. Thompson would drop out of the race if he did not place in the top two. But in a prime-time speech to supporters, Mr. Thompson only thanked his campaign staff and reiterated what he described as his “strong consistent conservative beliefs.”
On occasion, however, Mr. Thompson’s words slipped into the past tense. “We will always be bound by a close bond,” he said. “We have traveled a special road together for a very special purpose.”
The results in South Carolina began to arrive hours after Mr. Romney won the Republican caucuses in Nevada by a wide margin. But his victory there was likely to be overshadowed by the South Carolina results, because his rivals largely decided to ignore Nevada. Mr. McCain of Arizona and Mr. Huckabee were looking to score support from military families and evangelical Christian voters, two powerful blocs in South Carolina that represent a core section of the Republicans’ conservative base.
Mr. Romney, speaking in Florida, delivered a stump speech with a celebratory air, despite the prospects of a poor showing in the Palmetto State. He pointed out that Michigan and Nevada, along with Florida, usually play pivotal roles in the general election, and argued that his success in those states would bode well for Republican prospects in November.
“Those are two big battleground states,” Mr. Romney said. “Winning them is a big indication of a very successful presidential campaign. That’s one reason we fought so hard in those states.”
While open to all voters, the primary was dominated by Republicans and conservatives. Eight in 10 voters described themselves as Republicans (up from six in 10 in the 2000 primary), and more than half were white evangelical Christians.
About 45 percent of Mr. Huckabee’s supporters described themselves as very conservative, while about the same number of Mr. McCain’s supporters said they were moderate or liberal, according to a poll conducted as people left polling places around the state.
Most of Mr. Huckabee’s supporters described themselves as evangelical or born-again Christians, and most said they attended religious services at least once a week. Six in 10 Huckabee supporters said it mattered a great deal that a presidential candidate shared their religious beliefs.
On the matter of electability, more voters said Mr. McCain had the best chance of winning the general election in November than any of the other candidates. But voters were divided between Mr. McCain and Mr. Huckabee over who was most likely to bring change to the country.
Voters said they were more concerned about the nation’s economy than they were about illegal immigration, the war in Iraq or terrorism.
They said it is more important that the eventual nominee shares their values than that he has the right experience or is forthright or is likely to beat a Democrat in the fall, according to a poll conducted as people left polling places around the state.
Two-thirds of the voters say their own family’s finances are holding steady, while about one in ten say they are falling behind. More than a third of those who participated in the poll taken as voters left polling places said it matters a great deal to their vote that a candidate share their religious beliefs. More than 4 in 10 say abortion should be illegal in most cases and another 3 in 10 say it should be illegal in all cases.
The exit poll was conducted by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International for the National Election Pool.
Poor weather conditions, including rainstorms and reports of snow, were expected to play a role in Saturday’s outcome. Aides to Mr. McCain debated whether it would help or hurt his chances, with some seeing an advantage for Mr. Huckabee, because the evangelical Christian voters he is counting on are often highly motivated.
Others thought the conditions could help Mr. McCain, since the worst weather was forecast for parts of the state where Mr. Huckabee is the strongest. Milder weather was expected along the coast, where Mr. McCain is strongest.
The state director of Mr. McCain’s campaign, Buzz Jacobs, said early this afternoon that some McCain supporters had been turned away from polling places in Horry County because electronic voting machines were not functioning properly.
“Some voters say they are being instructed to return at a later time,” Mr. Jacobs said in a statement. “We are disturbed by these reports and hope that this issue is resolved immediately. We encourage any voters who were turned away from the polls to return again to their polling place this afternoon to exercise their constitutional right to vote.”
In Nevada, it appeared that Mr. Romney’s last-minute campaigning in the state paid off. With 98 percent of the electoral precincts reporting, the former Massachusetts governor had 51 percent of the vote, while Senator McCain and Representative Ron Paul each had 13 percent. Mr. Huckabee was running fourth with 8 percent.
Mr. Romney’s rivals overlooked Nevada, largely because state rules do not automatically assign delegates to the winning candidate, unlike South Carolina.
“Today, the people of Nevada voted for change in Washington,” Mr. Romney said in a statement released by his campaign. “For far too long, our leaders have promised to take the action necessary to build a stronger America, and still the people of Nevada and all across this country are waiting. Whether it is reforming health care, making America energy independent or securing the border, the American people have been promised much and are now ready for change.”
In an interview aboard his campaign plane as he flew to Florida, Mr. Romney said he could “not be more pleased” and made the argument once again that it was important to rack up delegates, no matter what the contest.
“Nevada has 34 delegates,” he said. “And I want those delegates.”
In a sign of just how unsurprising the result was, after one question from a reporter about how he felt, he went back to talking about his economic stimulus package.
Mr. Romney’s $250 billion plan is far larger than President Bush’s proposed $150 billion plan and contains. Besides tax cuts for individuals and corporations, the plan has several provisions targeting homeowners, raising loan limits from the Federal Housing Administration and lowering down payment requirements to help more people qualify for loans.
When asked later whether his victory had any diminished significance given how his rivals had mostly chosen not to campaign in Nevada, Mr. Romney again said it was the delegate count that mattered.
“I’m not looking just to get a couple of high profile victories,” he said. “I want go get delegates and I want to win this nomination.” Before leaving the Nevada, Mr. Romney handed out doughnuts to supporters and caucus goers at a 7:30 a.m. stop at a Las Vegas high school. Many of the several dozen in the enthusiastic crowd, however, appeared to be supporters who had driven in from California, as caucus goers did not need to show up until 9 a.m.
In a sign of just how much better organized Mr. Romney was in the state than his rivals, all but one of the signs lining the entrance to the high school were his, with a lone sign for Mr. McCain interrupting the pattern.
Mr. Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, got on the back of a pickup truck to address the crowd of well-wishers in the early morning cold.
“You guys have been turning folks out, and by virtue of that I think we’re going to have a great, successful day today,” Mr. Romney said.
“Across the country in South Carolina, people are voting there also and I’m hoping to do real well there,” he continued. “I’m hoping to win, but I don’t know what the outcome will be. But with two golds and two silvers, we’re feeling pretty good.”
Mr. Romney also focused on Nevada because the state has a sizable Mormon population.
Still, his Nevada victory is certain to be overshadowed by the outcome in South Carolina.
Mr. Cooper reported from Charleston, S.C.; Mr. Grynbaum reported from New York.
Taken from: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/19/us/politics/19cnd-repubs.html?_r=1&bl=&ei=5087&en=c297c8b024e9ceef&ex=1200978000&pagewanted=print&oref=slogin