John McCain’s headquarters in the old colonial town of Charleston resounded on Saturday night with the sound of ghosts being laid to rest. Eight years on from the defeat to George Bush in South Carolina that put an end to McCain’s presidential hopes, his victory now brings within his grasp the factor that has so far eluded all Republican hopefuls – momentum.
The Republican field remains too muddled to pin on him the title of frontrunner – the label has bounced between McCain, Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney with such unpredictability that its currency has been devalued. But South Carolina does boost his standing as he now prepares for the important primary in Florida on January 29.
Romney’s victory in Nevada will put more wind in his sails, too, coming on the back of his win this week in Michigan. But Nevada was essentially uncontested, and as such carries less resonance within the Republican fight.
South Carolina, by contrast, has huge significance as the first Southern state to go to the polls – locals call it the "gateway to the South". In recent decades the Republican movement has been rooted in the South, and since 1980 none of the party’s presidential candidates have taken the nomination without first being triumphant in South Carolina.
McCain advisers will draw further encouragement from exit polls that gave a crucial indication as to why he managed to pull ahead of his main rival Huckabee. Born-again and evangelical voters, who represent more than 40% of Republicans in South Carolina, tended to side with Huckabee who as an ordained Southern Baptist minister has undisputed religious credentials. Huckabee took 40% of their vote, but significantly McCain also did well, taking 27%.
On the other hand, Huckabee failed to make an impression on non-evangelical voters, earning only 12% of their vote compared with 40% for McCain.
If that pattern is repeated across the country it suggests that Huckabee’s prospects are likely to be restricted to a relatively few Bible belt states in the South, while McCain can hope now to spread his wings across swaths of the country.
There are still large hurdles standing between McCain and the eventual nomination. Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, will draw energy from his victories in Michigan and Nevada this week.
With the US economy showing increasing signs of strain, and anxieties over jobs and falling house prices propelling it to the top of voters’ priorities, Romney is emphasizing his track record as the only candidate with business experience.
But Romney’s result in South Carolina was disappointing. The former governor of Massachusetts spent more than $4m there – more than anyone else.
Rudy Giuliani also remains a wildcard, having invested all his presidential hopes in Florida, though his strategy of ignoring the early races is starting to look more eccentric by the day.
So this remains McCain’s night: the politician once seen by many hard-core conservatives as maverick and left field has been embraced with open arms by the mainstream of his party. Another ghost has been laid to rest.
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