John McCain broke free of the crowded Republican field on Saturday when he narrowly beat off a strong challenge from Mike Huckabee in the South Carolina primary, traditionally the decisive test in the race for the party nomination.
With New Hampshire and now South Carolina in his hands, McCain is the best placed of the candidates going into the next showdown on January 29 in Florid, where he already holds a poll lead.
McCain, the Vietnam war hero, Arizona senator and the most moderate of the Republican field, saw off a strong challenge from Mike Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas and Baptist preacher.
The senator’s win reverses his defeat in 2000 at the hands of George Bush, whose team was blamed for mounting a dirty tricks operation against the senator.
Huckabee phoned McCain to concede before all the results were in. But the Arkansan told a party of supporters afterwards he would continue to battle McCain elsewhere. "This is not an event. It is a process and the process is far, far from over," Huckabee said. "The path to the White House is not ending here. We are resetting the clock," he said. "After a little bit of sleep, we will wake up to fight the battle yet again."
Huckabee’s failure could effectively mean the end of his challenge. He won in Iowa with the support of Christian evangelicals and was hoping their counterparts in South Carolina would propel him to another victory. There is not the same concentration of Christian evangelicals in Florida.
The importance of South Carolina for McCain is that the winner of each primary in the state since Ronald Reagan in 1980 has gone on to become the Republican nominee.
Both men, who were appealing to different constituencies, needed a win to keep campaign momentum going.
McCain, the most moderate of the Republican candidates, concentrated his campaign along the coastal areas and the southern part of the state, where military veterans and retirees are concentrated. Huckabee focused on the state’s Bible Belt, in the north.
But McCain had to reach out beyond his core vote in order to win and that meant taking some of the evangelical vote. It was tough for him, given the strong feelings in the state of a sudden rise in Latino immigration, an emotive issue that cost him votes: he last year supported a Senate plan that would have offered illegal immigrants a route to legality.
The exit polls suggested that the battle for third place was equally tight, between Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson. Romney deserted South Carolina earlier in the week after realizing he could not win there, partly because of negative reaction to his Mormon religion among Christian evangelicals, and concentrated instead of Nevada, where he won on Saturday.
Fred Thompson needs a good result in South Carolina. Fourth place could force him to pull out.
South Carolina has been the pivotal contest for Republicans in the past. The winner in the state in recent contests has gone on to become the Republican nominee: Bush in 2000, Robert Dole in 1996, Bush senior in 1988.