Columbia, S.C. -- Senator John McCain regained the lead in the contest for the Republican presidential nomination today by winning the South Carolina Republican primary in a race that is certain to continue through January 29 in Florida and "Tsunami Tuesday" on February 5.
McCain won by a modest three percentage points, 33 to 30, besting former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. Fred Thompson was a weak third-place finisher at 16 percent, followed by Mitt Romney at 15 percent.
The results are a major setback to former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, the leader of a populist white evangelical insurgency. Huckabee needed a victory here to build on his success in the first Republican contest, the January 3 Iowa caucuses.
Since 1980, the victor of the Republican primary here has gone on to become the party's general election nominee. This year, the multi-candidate field remains competitive, however, and it is still too early to draw firm conclusions. At the same time, Fred Thompson gave a concession speech that verged on a withdrawal statement, although he never took that leap.
Romney's victory in the Nevada caucuses Saturday keeps his campaign alive. Earlier in the campaign, last summer and fall, Romney thought he had a chance of winning here, and he ran by far the largest number of commercials in South Carolina, 5257, according to Nielsen Monitor. The vast majority of Romney's commercials aired before January 1, prior to his loss in Iowa to Huckabee.
The January 29 Florida GOP primary now looms as a four-way test pitting McCain, Romney, Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani against each other.
RealClearPolitics averaged the results of the six most recent surveys of Florida Republicans and the results show a tight race, with McCain holding a slight lead: McCain 23.2, Giuliani 20.3, Romney 18 and Huckabee 17.3.
In South Carolina, six of every ten Republican voters identified themselves in network exit polls as born again evangelicals -- far more than enough to determine the winner -- but Huckabee, a Southern Baptist preacher, only won 40 percent of them. McCain won 27 percent, Thompson 15 percent and Romney 12 percent.
McCain was carried into the winner's circle here by non-born again evangelical Republicans. He won 40 percent of these voters, while Huckabee received only 12 percent, running behind Romney with 21 percent, and Thompson with 15 percent.
Huckabee, whose vote totals were diminished by the defection of some of his socially-conservative backers to Thompson, sought to solidify support among this demographic by stressing his support for the rights of South Carolinians to fly the Confederate flag over government buildings, and his new-found opposition to illegal immigrants.
Huckabee's anti-immigrant strategy appeared to pay off, but not enough to push Huckabee ahead of McCain overall. Among the 52 percent of Republican voters here who believe illegal immigrants should be deported, Huckabee won a 31 percent plurality, to McCain's 25 percent, a 6-point edge according to network exit polls.
Among the 48 percent of GOP voters who take more moderate stands on immigration, calling for granting illegals either a path to citizenship or legal temporary-worker status, McCain beat Huckabee by a solid 15 point margin.
The network exit polls showed McCain's strengths and weaknesses.
McCain received his biggest margins among voters looking for an experienced nominee, older voters, voters who consider Iraq to be the top issue, voters critical of the Bush administration, Catholics, and voters who rarely or never go to church. He performed relatively poorly among very religious voters, financially strapped voters, anti-immigration voters, conservatives, and proponents of tax cuts.
During the campaign here, Huckabee demonstrated his rhetorical talents -- which may continue to keep his campaign aloft in Florida and perhaps on 'Tsunami Tuesday' -- at a gathering late Friday night here in Columbia, his last event before the polls opened this morning.
Joking that "in many ways, I'm like a lot of people in the United States: I'm a guy over 50 looking for a job," Huckabee went on to demonstrate that he stands alone among the Republican presidential candidates in addressing his message directly to the working and lower-middle class whites whose abandonment of the Democratic Party over the past four decades turned the GOP into the majority party across the South.
"If you are the guy in the corner office in a large company, [the economy] is probably doing great," Huckabee told the crowd. "But if you are the guy serving the food, the one driving the truck, if you are the one handling the bags -- quite frankly, you ask those folks, they tell you it's not so good -- because many of the people who work so hard, who are living from one paycheck to the next, who are literally one paycheck from not being able to pay the rent, one paycheck from not being able to pay for their kid who falls in the playground and breaks his arm, one paycheck from not being able to put gas in the truck -- for people who are struggling in the middle class, the economy has been a challenge."
While McCain most often appeared in comfortable suburban venues with an armada of national and local figures -- Senators Lindsay Graham and Tom Coburn, Jack Kemp, state Attorney General Henry McMaster, state senator John Courson -- Huckabee is the first Republican candidate with 16-time World Wrestling Entertainment champion Ric "The Nature Boy" Flair as a warm-up speaker. Huckabee's advance men have shown a predilection for setting events at downscale barbecue restaurants.
Over the past month, Huckabee first surged in polls of South Carolina Republicans, from fifth place to, for a time, a solid first place. Over the past two weeks, however, he fell behind McCain, largely for two reasons: McCain got a major boost from his January 8 New Hampshire win, and the struggling campaign of Fred Thompson made a last ditch effort to get on track here. While well behind and tied for third place with Romney, Thompson did make gains, and the data suggest that the 6 points Thompson picked up came out of Huckabee's hide.
Thompson's appeal to Huckabee's voters, according to observers here, forced the former Arkansas Governor to shift from his own version of compassionate conservatism and to start using hard-line wedge issues such as the Confederate flag and immigration to win these voters back.
In addition to calling on "outsiders" to stop telling South Carolinians to take down the Confederate flag -- a symbol of racism to many black and some white voters -- Huckabee sent out a mailer boasting of support from high-profile anti-immigration activist Jim Gilchrist: "Minuteman Founder Endorses Huckabee."
Many Republicans have avoided ties to either Gilchrist or to the various organizations claiming the title of Minutemen. Their armed border patrol activities prompted President Bush to declare, "I'm against vigilantes in the United States of America."
This admonition did not restrain Huckabee, who now has to settle for a second place showing in South Carolina, and hope that it is adequate to revive his bid and to keep cash flowing to his financially strapped campaign.