COLUMBIA, S.C. — Ever since Ronald Reagan in 1980, the winner of the South Carolina Republican primary has gone on to win the party's presidential nomination, and often the presidency.
Yet as Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee head into Saturday's vote fighting for the top spot in the state, even the South Carolina Republican Party chairman concedes that the Palmetto State might not be able to pick the national front-runner this time.
Rather, it might send a few candidates on to battle for the soul of a still-divided party, and send others home. Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, for example, was making what might be a last stand in a state where he's conceded he must do well. He was fourth, with 13 percent, in a McClatchy-MSNBC poll released Thursday.
Katon Dawson, the South Carolina Republican Party chairman, cautioned against expecting the state to crown a national front-runner, as it did with Reagan in 1980, George H.W. Bush in 1988, Bob Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000.
"This is a different time," Dawson said Friday. In those earlier campaigns, prior votes in Iowa and New Hampshire had narrowed the field to two, and South Carolina gave the nod to one of them. This time, three different candidates have won three different states.
One, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who won in Michigan, even wrote off South Carolina, traveling instead to Nevada on Friday to campaign for that state's caucuses Saturday. Democrats also hold precinct caucuses Saturday in Nevada.
However, the rest of the Republican field has raced across South Carolina, scrambling for votes as outside interest groups have flooded the state with ads and calls, trying to influence the outcome.
McCain appealed to fiscal conservatives and security-minded voters Friday, criticizing proposed tax rebates to stimulate the economy as shortsighted, stressing his calls to slash pork-barrel spending and reminding voters of his early push to send more troops to Iraq.
"Where do the rebates come from?" McCain asked a crowd at a Hilton Head resort. "Do they just have a printing press? That money doesn't fall like manna from heaven."
He's proposed longer-term fixes, such as cutting the corporate tax rate, making the Bush tax reductions permanent and reining in spending.
"We Republicans presided over the greatest expansion of government
spending since the Great Society," he said Friday. "We betrayed our obligation to the American people."
It was his tough stance on Iraq, though, that appeared to sway more people in the Hilton Head audience.
"My son is serving in Iraq," said Marti Etter, 57, who handles vacation rentals in Hilton Head, "and (McCain) is the best one to take care of him."
Huckabee stressed pocketbook issues Friday, looking to broaden his appeal beyond religious and moral issues as voters grow more anxious about the economy.
South Carolina's unemployment rate shot up to 6.6 percent in December, and the McClatchy-MSNBC poll found the economy topping the list of voters' concerns, cited by twice as many as in early December.
In Greenville, Huckabee acknowledged President Bush's proposal to stimulate the economy, but said it didn't go far enough.
"President Bush's plan will help, and it's an important step. But South Carolina and the rest of the nation need some bigger changes if we are to reverse the trends of the last few years," he said.
Speaking to retirees in Hilton Head, he pitched his proposals for more balanced trade agreements, less regulation on business and the Fair Tax, a form of national sales tax that would replace the income tax.
"We say in the South that if you can't fix something with duct tape and WD-40, it can't be fixed," he said. The existing tax code, he added, "can't be fixed."
The McClatchy-MSNBC poll found a close contest between McCain and Huckabee for first place. It also found Thompson fighting Romney for third place, a finish that could end Thompson's campaign. He hasn't won anywhere yet, and needs a win in his native South.
"South Carolina is where it's at for me," Thompson said Friday.
He said anew that he alone had a truly conservative record on economic, national security and social issues.
But he lamented that he hasn't received the kind of attention he craves.
"It was only after I came in third in Iowa that third didn't amount to much," he said.
He did win at least one supporter Friday, although the voter was from Kentucky, not South Carolina.
"I consider you my brother in Christ," said Paul Johnson, an insurance agent who said he'd driven 500 miles to Seneca, S.C., from Kentucky. "I trust you with this billfold more than Mike Huckabee, because he might give it to some illegal."
(Johnson, of The Charlotte Observer, reported from Hilton Head Island. Pete Smolowitz of The Charlotte Observer contributed to this article from Seneca.)