John McCain's narrow win in South Carolina brought some clarity to the Republican race, that was threatening to sink into utter chaos if Huckabee had managed to scramble the cards once more. McCain managed to win in an environment that looked much more difficult than it was in 2000, with only 19% of the electorate independent, and he appears to have narrowly carried the vote of registered Republicans.
McCain was helped a great deal by Fred Thompson who kept Huckabee's percentages down among evangelicals and conservatives by taking third-place and running strongly in conservative upstate (he for example received 21% in Greenville County) . Huckabee "only" got 41% among evangelicals to McCain's 27%. In Iowa, Huckabee had crushed Romney 46% to 19% among that group. Another factor that helped McCain was Romney's decision to concede the race and move on to Nevada. That appears to have helped McCain open up big margins in the coastal counties.
Yet, however narrow his victory and whether or not he would have won without Thompson being on the ballot and without Romney conceding the state, McCain's win is a huge boost to the Arizona Senator. And it is the main story out of Saturday. We always knew the Nevada results would be overshadowed by South Carolina and its king-maker reputation in Republican politics. This by no way means that McCain has wrapped-up the nomination, but he has certainly reclaimed his front-runner status. Since his New Hampshire win, McCain has been rising in national polls and now looks very strong in states like New York, New Jersey and... Florida. With the press now celebrating McCain's renaissance in the Palmetto State, his big-state advantage will likely strengthen. To put it as clearly as possible, McCain's rivals better hope to stop him in Florida.
Beyond the fact that it has front-runner again, the GOP race is much more clear tonight for another reason. As a result of voting in Nevada and South Carolina, three candidates are much less viable than they were this morning; they are, of course, Mike Huckabee, Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani.
First up, Mike Huckabee, whose nomination route was based on a Southern strategy. He was hoping to follow up a South Carolina victory with wins on February 5th in states with a strong evangelical base (like Georgia). Huckabee was also hoping to show that he had a broader appeal by extending a South Carolina bounce into Florida, where some polls were showing him leading post-Iowa. But his strategy is now in shambles. If Huckabee could not manage to pull off a victory in a state like South Carolina, even as a clear majority of the electorate identified itself to be evengelical, where can he win? And even if he pulls ahead here and there on February 5th, how can he amass a national majority?
The second candidate who lost a lot tonight is Fred Thompson. South Carolina was supposed to be his strong state, and he came in a weak third, far behind the two front-runners. The TV pundits were left wondering whether Thompson's only concern at the moment is to help McCain coast to the nomination. In his concession speech tonight, Thompson was speaking in the past tense and he will likely face a deluge of questions about when he is dropping out. Thompson has sank in national polls and does not have another state in which to make a stand. His hope was a strong showing in South Carolina, and it had been a while he knew he would not get it.
Finally, the results tonight were worrisome for Rudy Giuliani. Up until today, everything had played out perfectly for his campaign. Three winners in three states, no front-runner and chaos. But McCain's rise leaves very little space for Giuliani, so that Rudy desperately needed Huckabee to extend the chaos. Not only do McCain and Giuliani appeal to the same group of socially moderate voters focused on national security, but McCain is strong in the states that Giuliani needs the most. And a recent poll of New York has McCain moving into a tie with Giuliani in his home-state. If McCain had lost tonight, he would have faltered in places like New York and Florida and allowed Giuliani to recuperate his voters just as the spotlight turns back on him. But Giuliani will now have to deal with a surging McCain who will make it that much more difficult for Rudy to get anywhere in Florida. And this is not even mentioning the fact that Giuliani came in sixth in both of today's showings, at 4% in Nevada and at 2% in South Carolina -- two pathetic showings for the candidate who long ran as the national front-runner.
And that leaves McCain confronting Mitt Romney, who came in a weak fourth tonight considering he had spent millions in the state since September. But Romney triumphed in Nevada earlier in the day which guarantees that he stays in the storyline going forward. Romney now has a delegate lead which he will keep until at least January 29th; he is also the candidate with the most state wins, having also won Michigan and Wyoming. And more importantly, Romney has all the money he can wish for given that he is freely spending his personal fortune. Romney realizes that he needs to cut McCain's advantage in Florida as quickly as possible, as he cannot afford seeing McCain head into Super Tuesday with a high-profile triumph in the Sunshine State.
We're ten days from the next Republican contest, and the storyline has finally gotten more clear: John McCain and Mitt Romney are locked in a tight battle for the nomination, with Rudy Giuliani trying to save himself in Florida and Mike Huckabee trying to generate some buzz in Southern states. Granted, both races have been crazy enough that no one should be counted at this stage, especially in the run-up to Florida. But the situation certainly appears much less chaotic than it did twelve hours ago.
More political news and commentary on the author's blog, at Campaign Diaries.
John McCain's narrow win in South Carolina brought some clarity to the Republican race, that was threatening to sink into utter chaos if Huckabee had managed to scramble the cards once more.