McCain Keeps Sights on South Carolina

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The large number of undecided voters in South Carolina has left the race for the GOP primary wide open. Sen. John McCain is at the back of the pack. Still, he keeps South Carolina in his sights even though it's the state that crippled his 2000 presidential election ambitions.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Another Republican is not competing so much in Iowa but wants a shot at some of other early states. Senator John McCain was once the frontrunner in this presidential campaign on the Republican side. More recently, he's been struggling.

And NPR's Audie Cornish joined him in South Carolina.

AUDIE CORNISH: Last summer, Senator John McCain's campaign all but imploded with overspending, the departure of key staffers, and resentment from conservatives over the senator's backing of an immigration bill that detractors called amnesty. Since then, he's run a more effective effort, focusing on New Hampshire, where he won the primary in 2000, and on South Carolina, where he got wiped out.

While he's thought to be making headway these days in New Hampshire, that may not be the case here in South Carolina.

Professor DANIELLE VINSON (Furman University): He's kind of stuck.

CORNISH: That's Danielle Vinson, political science professor at Furman University. She says McCain appears to have only now recovered from his ties to the Senate immigration bill.

Prof. VINSON: During the summer, every time he was mentioned it was in the context of the immigration legislation and it was not helping him here at all. I think the fall, he's been allowed to focus on some other issues and that kind of I think at least stopped the dramatic drop he had seen in South Carolina.

CORNISH: Issues like controlling pork barrel spending, veterans health care and the war in Iraq.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Now, I'm going to give you some straight talk, my friends. We are winning in Iraq. We are winning in Iraq, and we can win in Iraq unless...

(Soundbite of applause)

Sen. McCAIN: Unless they cut off the funding and set a date for withdrawal, which they've been trying to do.

CORNISH: And as he travels upstate and through the rural areas of South Carolina, McCain makes it clear to voters he's learned his lesson when it comes to immigration overhaul.

Sen. McCAIN: I got the message. The message is Americans want the border secured first. I will secure the borders of the United States of America.

(Soundbite of applause)

CORNISH: This new tact is leading Republican voters like Henry Parr(ph) of Greenville and Richard Young(ph) of Greer to give John McCain a second look.

Mr. HENRY PARR: I think you have to respect Senator McCain for being consistent in his positions on the Middle East and having the conviction to stick to some positions, even though they're unpopular.

Mr. RICHARD YOUNG: I would say, you know, I'm going to wait a little bit more, but now I'd have to say I'm a McCain man. I didn't think I would be when I came here today.

CORNISH: Both men got to hear the senator speak at a lunch meeting of their rotary club in the city of Greenville yesterday.

Gloria Haskins, a state representative and McCain supporter, says she thinks that people will once again respond to McCain's straight-talking message.

State Representative GLORIA HASKINS (Republican, South Carolina): He will take on an issue regardless of political consequence and he will tell the truth and he will try to do what's best for America. And that kind of sincerity is what we need in a leader.

CORNISH: These days, however, McCain's not the only straight shooter in town, says Professor Danielle Vinson.

Prof. VINSON: That's one of the things that appealed about McCain in 2000, is the fact that he says what he thinks. But I think the problem for him now with that, the reason he's not getting as much mileage out of that is because there are other people in the race this time who are very similar in that regard.

CORNISH: Vinson says sharp-talking Southern competitors like Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson have siphoned off some of McCain's potential supporters. But an estimated 30 percent of GOP voters consider themselves undecided. And McCain may not be in such a bad spot, says Vinson. The senator agrees.

Sen. McCAIN: Look, I'm not looking at this race with rose-colored glasses. We have a long way to go, but we have come a long way and I think we're making slow but steady progress. And I think I've been able to connect in both New Hampshire and South Carolina.

CORNISH: Right now it appears McCain's pinning his hopes on New Hampshire. A good showing there could give him the bounce he needs to entice voters in South Carolina, the state whose Republican voters have correctly pegged every GOP presidential nominee since 1980.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, Columbia, South Carolina.

INSKEEP: Our senior Washington editor Ron Elving analyzes how the latest polls in Iowa and some other key states have brought turmoil to the campaign, and you can read his Watching Washington column at npr.org.

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