COLUMBIA, S.C. — The Republican Party limps out of South Carolina Sunday unable to crown a clear front-runner for its presidential nomination and facing an even more uncertain future in Florida and a rush of mega-state voting.
Despite his victory in South Carolina, Arizona Sen. John McCain cannot claim the mantle of inevitability that other Republicans such as Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush wore after they won the first primary in the South.
McCain couldn't even boast the sole win Saturday, as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won in Nevada caucuses, where more delegates needed to win the nomination were at stake.
Indeed, at least three candidates now head to Florida for the next test on Jan. 29, each with a base of support in the party — McCain, Romney and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
In Florida, they'll face former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, waiting to make his competitive debut in the mega-state, where he's already campaigned more than anyone else. A win there and in any of the winner-takes-all, delegate-rich states such as New York, Connecticut or New Jersey on Feb. 5 could put him into the thick of a nationwide hunt for the 1,191 delegates needed to win the GOP nomination.
Democrats, too, emerged from Saturday's voting in Nevada without a clear front-runner, and a likely two-person slugfest that could go on for weeks, if not months.
New York Sen. Hillary Clinton narrowly won the popular vote there, but Illinois Sen. Barack Obama finished a close second and emerged with a 13-12 edge in projected delegates by winning more rural caucuses with fewer votes.
The two now head to the South Carolina Democratic primary on Jan. 26, then on to more than 20 Super Tuesday contests on Feb. 5, when party rules allow each to claim delegates in every state, even where they finish second. Both can stay in and slug it out coast to coast, perhaps for months.
That sets up a state-by-state hunt for the 2,025 delegates needed to win the nomination. The prospect had staffers at the Democratic National Committee dusting off the party's delegate-selection rules.
"It's been a long time since anybody's really focused on it," said party spokeswoman Stacie Paxton. "When you get a close race and the candidates appeal to people in different states, it realty gets down to a delegate hunt."
As the South Carolina and Nevada results illustrated, the coming weeks are even more challenging for Republicans.
The party remains splintered, unwilling so far to coalesce behind any candidate.
Across the country, Republicans appear roughly divided three ways, with evangelical Christians supporting Huckabee, other conservatives supporting Romney and moderates supporting McCain, according to a recent poll by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.
Further illustrating the divisions in the party, the campaign in South Carolina was a slugfest of charges, many waged by interest groups, labeling McCain, for example, as soft on illegal immigration or abortion, and Huckabee as a tax-raising liberal.
Many charges were false or exaggerated. But unlike the 2000 campaign, when the smears in South Carolina were personal, the attacks were on issues and not as easily dismissed.
Rather, they signaled how difficult it might be for the party to rally behind any of its candidates, particularly the two top vote getters in South Carolina, McCain and Huckabee, for the nomination or in a general election.
Many Republicans still have a problem with McCain, considering him too ready to buck the party.
Non-evangelical Republicans, meanwhile, don't like the overtly Christian Huckabee — he got only 12 percent of their vote in South Carolina — and anti-tax crusaders think he'll raise taxes.
"If either of these two guys get the nomination, it's going to destroy the Republican Party,'' said influential conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh. "It's going to change it forever, be the end of it. A lot of people aren't going to vote."