CHARLESTON, SC — What a difference eight years make. In 2000, John McCain left South Carolina with his presidential hopes dashed. A coalition of establishment Republicans and conservative Christians circled the wagons around George W. Bush, halting McCain’s momentum coming out of New Hampshire. A frustrated McCain lashed out at “agents of intolerance” within the religious right, remarks that would come back to haunt him in future contests.
The scene was very different at the Citadel on Saturday night. A beaming John McCain told the jubilant crowd, “Thank you, my friends, and thank you, South Carolina, for bringing us across the finish line in the first in the South primary.”
This time, he was surrounded by a phalanx of South Carolina Republican officials who had supported Bush in 2000, in addition to longtime McCain loyalists like Sen. Lindsey Graham. While he certainly wasn’t the Christian right’s candidate this time around, he won a critical mass of evangelicals and held down Mike Huckabee’s margins among his strongest voting bloc. And this time, McCain was delivering a victory speech.
South Carolina has played a familiar role in the Republican nominating process since 1980. It is the state where the GOP establishment reasserts its influence, batting down the insurgent candidate and propping up its own choice for titular head of the party. The Palmetto State has rebuffed populists like Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan, and now Huckabee while rescuing frontrunners George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, and George W. Bush. Can McCain also gain enough momentum from South Carolina to go all the way?
McCain hopes there are similarities between the past frontrunners and himself. But there are key differences as well. First, McCain isn’t the undisputed establishment candidate. Last summer, most pundits (including this one) considered him a longshot. He has been plagued by money and organizational problems. He is opposed by much of the conservative movement. Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney have taken their own turns laying claim to the frontrunner mantle.
Nor did McCain win an overwhelming victory. In 2000, Bush beat McCain 53 percent to 42 percent in South Carolina. Dole beat Buchanan 45 percent to 29 percent. McCain just sneaked past Huckabee by three points, 33 percent to 30 percent. According to the CNN exit poll, Huckabee bested McCain among Republicans by one point. Other key conservative constituencies also voted against the Arizona senator.
Most importantly, 2008 has up to this point been a momentum-free election cycle. Huckabee’s Iowa win didn’t give him much of a bounce in the subsequent contests. McCain’s New Hampshire upset didn’t stop Romney in Michigan. And Romney still leads among delegates, having pivoted from his failed early-state strategy to a complicated hunt for votes at the Republican National Convention.
NEVERTHELESS, McCain still has good reason to hope that South Carolina is the beginning of something good for his candidacy. Giuliani, the only candidate competing with McCain for national security voters and moderates, has yet to break into the double digits. Huckabee, Romney, and Fred Thompson are still splitting the vote to McCain’s right. Romney is the likeliest “stop McCain” candidate at this point, though he may be the least loved (McCain supporters at the Citadel cheered when Thompson edged Romney for third place).
While it may be too soon to say “McMentum,” McCain is currently leading in the RealClearPolitics polling average for Florida, a must-win for Giuliani, and delegate-rich California. He does seem to have gained from the perception that he is electable as well as his primary wins.
That doesn’t mean McCain is inevitable. He is still more popular among independents than Republicans, making him vulnerable in closed primaries. He has liabilities on taxes, campaign finance reform, immigration, global warming, the treatment of terror detainees. But McCain showed in South Carolina that he knows how to mitigate these liabilities. Accompanied by Phil Gramm, he shelved his class warfare rhetoric on the Bush tax cuts and emphasized the need to cut spending too. “Spending!” McCain hissed from the USS Yorktown in Mount Pleasant.
McCain came in second behind Huckabee among South Carolinians concerned about illegal immigration, which is as much of a head-scratcher as the exit polls showing that he carried New Hampshire Republican primary voters who opposed the Iraq war. He took credit in South Carolina for the surge, holding up a USA Today story on improved security in Baghdad, and promised veterans he would protect their benefits. This last position paid off in plurality support — 36 percent — from veterans and military families.
Perhaps most importantly, McCain was fortunate in his opponents. Conservatives had been railing against Huckabee’s fiscal and foreign policy views ever since the Arkansas ex-governor won Iowa. Consequently, they weren’t prepared to switch gears and start criticizing McCain after New Hampshire (Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin were notable exceptions). Will Giuliani be able to effectively run to McCain’s right in Florida? Only on fiscal issues, and economic conservatives have not shown much ability this year to derail candidates they dislike.
Last year, McCain’s attempt to merge his 2000 maverick image with a Bush-style frontrunner’s campaign proved incoherent. In South Carolina, however, he managed to run up big margins among the voting blocs and counties that backed him eight years ago while getting just enough votes from the people who had opposed him.
Although the networks were slow to call South Carolina for McCain, local McCainiacs never had any doubts. As the smell of po’ boys wafted in the background, well-dressed older men and women — he did beat Huckabee 42 percent to 27 percent among voters over 60, after all — boarded buses heading over to the Citadel’s Holiday Center.
I spotted a young outlier clad in a Clemson sweatshirt and asked him if he was nervous about the results. “Nervous?” he scoffed. “There’s no stopping him. This is just the beginning.”
That’s exactly what McCain seemed to be thinking as he cheerfully accepted South Carolina’s verdict. Or at least hoping.