The plot thickens

Campaign 2008 | Since 1980, every candidate to win South Carolina's Republican contest has won the party's presidential nomination
by Jamie Dean
Posted 1/20/08, 12:00 am

After days of relentless campaigning ahead of South Carolina's Republican presidential primary, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) spent Saturday afternoon at the movies. His film choice: "There Will Be Blood."

The film's title was reminiscent of the last time McCain waited on primary results in the Palmetto State: After a come-from-behind victory in New Hampshire's early contest in 2000, McCain's hopes imploded in South Carolina under the weight of opponent George W. Bush's popularity, and an ugly smear campaign by individuals opposed to McCain's bid.

On Saturday, the plot took a twist: After a come-from-behind victory in New Hampshire's Jan. 8 contest, McCain narrowly edged out Republican Mike Huckabee to win in South Carolina. For McCain, there was no blood this time -- just victory.

That victory is significant: Since 1980, every candidate to win South Carolina's Republican contest has won the party's presidential nomination.

An elated McCain told supporters gathered in Charleston, S.C.: "It took us a while, but what's eight years among friends?"

For Huckabee, the loss is significant as well: Though the formerly second-tier candidate with a low-budget campaign defied expectations by winning the Iowa caucus and nearly winning South Carolina, the loss was a blow. With a slim national organization and a small campaign coffer, Huckabee faces an uphill battle to remain competitive nationwide without the momentum of a South Carolina win.

But Huckabee insisted that he would remain in the race. "I don't want us to go out of here saying the game has ended," he told supporters in Columbia, S.C. "We've just finished one of the quarters of play...The path to the White House is not ending here tonight."

Political observers painted the tight race between McCain and Huckabee as a contest between evangelicals and non-evangelicals, and polling data reflected a divide. Early exit polls showed that nearly 60 percent of voters identified themselves as evangelicals. Out of that bloc, Huckabee garnered 40 percent of votes, while McCain garnered 27 percent.

Among non-evangelicals, McCain took 40 percent, while Huckabee gained 12 percent. (Mitt Romney gained 21 percent of the non-evangelical vote, but came in third in the overall contest.)

But while pundits talked about the evangelical divide, voters on the campaign trail talked about other concerns as well. On the eve of the South Carolina primary, retirees Buddy Melton and Jim Schmidt leaned on the back wall of The Beacon restaurant in Spartanburg, S.C., waiting for Republican candidate Fred Thompson to arrive, and talking about what matters most to them in the coming election.

As Thompson supporters packed into the restaurant's closed-in porch and hovered over plates piled with barbeque sandwiches and deep-fried onion rings, Melton and Schmidt sparred over issues like the war and bloated federal spending.

Melton supports the war and likes McCain's stance on bolstering efforts in Iraq. Schmidt opposes the war and thinks there's "one honest man in the race: Ron Paul." (Paul vigorously opposes the war.)

Melton wants a candidate who will drastically cut pork barrel spending. "Then you can fund the war," he told WORLD. "No, no, no," Schmidt interrupted. "Stop funding the war, and you can pay for more programs here."

The long-time friends may not agree on the war or federal spending, but there's one issue that does unite them: illegal immigration. Melton says illegal immigrants are a drain on the economy and take jobs from legal citizens. "We've got to get rid of the immigrants to help the economy," he says. Schmidt agrees: "You've definitely got to get rid of the immigrants."

Looking around the mostly white crowd in the room, Melton wonders out loud: "Where are they [immigrants] today? They just don't care."

When Fred Thompson arrives, the candidate talks about stemming the tide of illegal immigration, and the crowd erupts into cheers. When a woman in the audience asks the candidate how he would accomplish that task, the former Tennessee senator says he would add more border patrol agents. He adds: "It's not a matter of the details. We've just got to do what's right."

Thompson's message resonated with the crowd at The Beacon, but his sometimes-vague proposals failed to persuade a majority of South Carolinians. Thompson, once favored to win the primary in his Southern stomping grounds, struggled to garner 16 percent of the vote.

Before South Carolinians went to the polls on Saturday, Thompson acknowledged that he needed a strong showing in the state to continue in the race. The primary results cast doubts over whether Thompson would remain in the running. (Congressman Duncan Hunter dropped out of the race before the official primary results rolled in.)

South Carolina Republicans cited illegal immigration as their second-greatest concern in the upcoming elections, just behind the economy. McCain supporters worried that the candidate's approval of President Bush's plan to provide a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants would hurt the candidate in the state, but McCain beefed up his position on border security in recent months, leaving some voters more comfortable with the candidate.

Immigration promises to remain a prominent theme in the Republican race, and Congressman Bob Inglis fears Republicans are on the verge of mishandling the issue. At a Huckabee rally at Wofford College in Spartanburg on Friday, the South Carolina Republican told a crowd of college students and locals he endorsed Huckabee because he believes the candidate can handle the immigration problem "without villainizing immigrants." He added: "Having understood grace, he [Huckabee] has the capacity to extend grace to others."

Huckabee and other Republicans now turn their attention to Florida, where the state will hold its contest on Jan. 29. Conservative analyst Bill Bennett told CNN that McCain's South Carolina win would give him a significant advantage heading into Florida, and a sizeable bump nationwide: "I think it is a heck of an achievement, and I think he is clearly the frontrunner."

Jamie Dean

Jamie is national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously worked for the Charlotte World. Jamie has covered politics, disasters, religion, and more for WORLD. She resides in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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