McCain Edges Out Huckabee in S. Carolina

How did Sen. John McCain manage to make 150,000 votes enough to win South Carolina when the 250,000 votes he got in 2000 left him a loser to George W. Bush? He had a lot of help from Fred Thompson.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

A Southern triumph for Arizona Senator John McCain last night, and out West, wins for Senator Hillary Clinton and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Our political coverage begins today in South Carolina, where John McCain won a hard-fought contest, capturing 33 percent of the GOP vote. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee came in a close second with 30 percent.

NPR's Debbie Elliott has more from Columbia, South Carolina.

(Soundbite of crowd chanting)

Unidentified Group: Mac is back. Mac is back. Mac is back.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Mac is back. That was the chant at the Citadel in Charleston last night when McCain supporters finally heard he'd eked out a win over Mike Huckabee. A short time later, the candidate took the stage for a victory speech with a spring in his step and a grin from ear to ear.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): Thank you, South Carolina, for bringing us across the finish line first in the first-in-the-South primary.

(Soundbite of cheers)

Sen. McCAIN: You know, it took us awhile, but what's eight years among friends, huh?

(Soundbite of cheers)

ELLIOTT: No one in the state needs reminding about McCain's stinging defeat here in the 2000 race. He won this year with 100,000 fewer votes than he had back then, a feat possible because of this year's crowded GOP field and a 20 percent drop in the total vote for Republicans. McCain reminded his supporters that ever since 1980, the winner of the South Carolina Republican primary has gone on to the party's nomination.

The former prisoner of war campaigned as the man best prepared to handle national security, appealing to the state's large veteran population and it's sense of patriotism.

Sen. McCAIN: I'm running so that every person in this country, now and in generations to come, will know the same sublime honor that has been the treasure of my life - to be proud, to be an American.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

Unidentified Group: U.S.A., U.S.A., U.S.A.

ELLIOTT: Mike Huckabee corded the religious conservatives, the same group that gave him his early win in Iowa. He carried them but not by enough to overcome McCain's advantage elsewhere. Still, Huckabee's address in Columbia last night sounded more like a post-game pep talk than a concession speech. We left it all on the field, he told his supporters, and got awful close.

Mr. MIKE HUCKABEE (Former Republican Governor of Arkansas; Presidential Candidate): Unfortunately, in politics, close doesn't count for the first slot. But it does count. And the reason that I want to encourage you tonight is to remind you that politics - and particularly this year, more than perhaps any other - this is not an event. It is a process. And the process is far, far from over.

(Soundbite of cheers)

ELLIOTT: The process could be over soon for the other southerner in the race. Former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson came in third with 16 percent, just ahead of Mitt Romney who spent his recent days and dollars in Nevada. Thompson builds himself as the true conservative in the race. And his message resonated with Columbia accountant Wanda Wildman(ph), who decided to vote for Thompson after hearing him talk at a small group event.

Ms. WANDA WILDMAN (Accountant): In my voting life, this has been one of the most interesting presidential races. And to have had as many opportunities provided to us to actually meet and talk to presidential candidates has just really been remarkable. It makes me have tremendous faith in the United States and our system.

ELLIOTT: Her husband, Matt McGuire(ph), was also impressed with Thompson but…

Mr. MATT McGUIRE (Wanda Wildman's Husband): As much as I like him, I voted for McCain because we have a son that's in the Navy and military. And being a commander in chief had a big thing for us. And I do believe that he's a very honorable man.

ELLIOTT: But Thompson did make a difference here. His vote in many rural inland counties caused Huckabee his chance to overcome McCain's advantage along the state's coast and in the cities. In the end, that edge proved decisive.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Columbia, South Carolina.

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McCain Wins South Carolina's Kingmaking Contest

Arizona Sen. John McCain won the South Carolina GOP primary on Saturday, edging out former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in a tight race in a state that effectively ended his presidential bid eight years ago. With nearly all precincts reporting, McCain had a lead of about three percentage points over Huckabee.

With the ghost of 2000 behind him, McCain told the Associated Press, "It just took us a while. That's all. Eight years is not a long time."

Since 1980, the winner of this primary has also been the party's nominee. McCain also collected a victory in the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 8, but lost the contest in Michigan on Jan. 15 to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who also won Saturday's caucuses in Nevada.

But in South Carolina, widely respected for its kingmaker role in recent GOP nomination fights, Romney finished fourth — behind former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson. Thompson, whose campaign seemed to be on the ropes, had said he needed a strong showing in South Carolina to revitalize his prospects.

Huckabee told supporters that he wished that he had won and then complimented his rival McCain.

"I want to thank him for running a civil, good campaign. That's one of the things that I'm proud of," Huckabee said.

The race was closely watched not only because of South Carolina's predictive role in the past, but because polls had shown several candidates in a close contest here this month, with many voters remaining undecided.

South Carolina Republicans went to the polls in drab, cold weather, with snow in the state's upper regions, where many of the state's more conservative, evangelical Christian voters live.

Voters in the capital city of Columbia told NPR they were most concerned about national security, immigration and the economy. Unemployment in the state has reached 6.6 percent, the third-highest rate in the country.

Early exit polls conducted by the Associated Press and TV Networks showed that moderate voters and older voters supported McCain, while those attending church most often (more than once a week) more often voted for Huckabee. Military veterans made up one fourth of the Republican voters, and McCain had a 10-point lead over his rival with this group.

Former Baptist minister Huckabee had the advantage of campaigning in a state where at least 40 percent of the voters consider themselves evangelicals. More than half of those voting Saturday identified themselves in this camp.

Some of the vote count was delayed on primary day as voters in Myrtle Beach reported malfunctioning electronic voting machines, and some were forced to use paper ballots.

In the days leading up to the primary, there were reports of campaign smear tactics, including fake Christmas cards and phony telephone surveys intended to slander candidates. One leaflet that circulated even tried to cast aspersions on McCain's five years as a prisoner-of-war in Vietnam. The calls and leafleting were paid for by independent groups, which may not coordinate with the candidate under federal election law.

The tactics harkened back to McCain's defeat here in 2000, when rumors circulated that McCain's wife was a drug addict and that his adopted Bangladeshi daughter was a mixed race child he had fathered out of wedlock. McCain lost the South Carolina primary that year to George W. Bush.

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