COLUMBIA, S.C. — John McCain survived South Carolina's harsh Republican brawl Saturday to defeat Mike Huckabee in the state's presidential primary and emerge with important momentum going into the next round in Florida on Jan. 29.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who all but pulled out of the state before the voting, appeared to be headed for a disappointing finish in South Carolina, but earlier in the day he easily won Nevada's GOP caucus in a largely uncontested race.
In Nevada's Democratic caucus, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton topped Illinois Sen. Barack Obama Saturday, 51 to 45 percent, with 98 percent of precincts reporting. The Democrats now head to South Carolina for their party's primary there next Saturday. Waiting for them is native son John Edwards, the 2004 vice presidential nominee, who's been waging an energetic campaign there, although he polled less than 5 percent in Nevada.
In South Carolina on Saturday, the nation's first GOP Southern test featured clear choices, with the self-described Arizona straight talker trying to woo the state's large military and veteran population, former Arkansas governor Huckabee appealing to the huge evangelical Christian vote and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson promoting himself as the true conservative son of the South.
With 93 percent of precincts reporting, McCain led with 33 percent of the vote and Huckabee was second with 30 percent, trailed by former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson with 16 percent and Romney with 15 percent.
"I asked South Carolinians to help give me the opportunity to serve this country I love a little while longer," McCain told supporters Saturday night. "You have done that, and I will never forget it."
He noted how, since 1980, the winner of the GOP primary has gone on to be the party's nominee. "We're well on our way tonight," McCain said.
Huckabee called McCain to congratulate him, and told backers not to despair. "We just finished one of the quarters of play," Huckabee said. "We didn't lose tonight. The game ended a little early for us. The path to the White House is not ending here tonight."
But Huckabee's poor statewide showing with non-evangelicals — he got only 12 percent — raised the question of whether his quest for the nomination is in trouble, since to succeed nationally he must show greater strength than merely his evangelical base.
Thompson, whose flailing campaign is widely expected to end soon after the South Carolina vote, conceded prior to the vote that he needed to do well to continue his campaign, but said nothing about pulling out in a brief appearance before his supporters.
Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani will make his first big push of the campaign in the Jan. 29 Florida primary, and McCain will arrive there with momentum from his victory in South Carolina.
McCain's victory was redemption of sorts — he lost the 2000 primary to then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush in an ugly fight that saw party regulars line up behind Bush. This time, McCain attracted many of those party figures while maintaining his image as a straight-talking maverick. The pitch worked.
"He's anti-abortion, for one. I think he's very courageous. I don't think he'll take any guff from anybody," said Colleen Barth, 56, a teacher's aide. Jim Gibson, 42, general counsel for a manufacturer, had similar thoughts.
"He'll do what's right," said Gibson, "and not worry about the polls. He'll talk straight and not pander to voters."
McCain built his coalition by attracting voters over 45 and winning pluralities in the more-populous Piedmont and Low Country regions, according to exit polls.
But he didn't glide to victory, thanks to a down-in-the-mud campaign and some wariness in South Carolina's powerful Christian community.
Many religious voters instead were drawn to Huckabee and Thompson.
Steven Flagler, 24, assistant manager at a team apparel store, called Thompson "the only true conservative in the bunch," while Jerry Glover, 38, who works in computer support for the Marine Corps, found that he and Huckabee "shared the same beliefs, and those beliefs would affect how he governs."
The campaign remained fierce to the end. Candidates accused one another of conducting push polls, and Thompson blasted forces that put negative pamphlets on the windshields of cars parked outside one of his rallies Friday.
"It's another last-second distortion — it's basically high-school politics practiced by folks with high-school mentalities," he said.
Democrats had their own nasty tiffs during the week, and the Nevada caucus proved to be a classic party struggle between groups that are crucial to any potential nominee.
Obama won the backing of the influential Culinary Workers Union, while business interests tended to side with Clinton. Her forces were so concerned about the unions' impact that they unsuccessfully went to court to try to stop special caucuses on the Las Vegas Strip where casino and hotel employees could vote.
The state's large Hispanic population was also in play. Latino voters were an estimated 14 percent of Saturday's vote. Clinton got an estimated 64 percent of their vote.
The stakes also were high in the Nevada caucus because it was the only major Democratic contest between the Jan. 8 New Hampshire primary, where Clinton defied almost every poll and won, and the Jan. 26 South Carolina primary, the party's first Southern contest.
(Lightman reported from Washington, Douglas from Columbia, S.C. Mark Johnson and David Ingram of The Charlotte Observer contributed.)