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McCain Edges Out Huckabee in S. Carolina


From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

A Southern triumph for Arizona Senator John McCain last night, and out West, wins for Senator Hillary Clinton and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Our political coverage begins today in South Carolina, where John McCain won a hard-fought contest, capturing 33 percent of the GOP vote. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee came in a close second with 30 percent.

NPR's Debbie Elliott has more from Columbia, South Carolina.

(Soundbite of crowd chanting)

Unidentified Group: Mac is back. Mac is back. Mac is back.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Mac is back. That was the chant at the Citadel in Charleston last night when McCain supporters finally heard he'd eked out a win over Mike Huckabee. A short time later, the candidate took the stage for a victory speech with a spring in his step and a grin from ear to ear.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): Thank you, South Carolina, for bringing us across the finish line first in the first-in-the-South primary.

(Soundbite of cheers)

Sen. McCAIN: You know, it took us awhile, but what's eight years among friends, huh?

(Soundbite of cheers)

ELLIOTT: No one in the state needs reminding about McCain's stinging defeat here in the 2000 race. He won this year with 100,000 fewer votes than he had back then, a feat possible because of this year's crowded GOP field and a 20 percent drop in the total vote for Republicans. McCain reminded his supporters that ever since 1980, the winner of the South Carolina Republican primary has gone on to the party's nomination.

The former prisoner of war campaigned as the man best prepared to handle national security, appealing to the state's large veteran population and it's sense of patriotism.

Sen. McCAIN: I'm running so that every person in this country, now and in generations to come, will know the same sublime honor that has been the treasure of my life - to be proud, to be an American.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

Unidentified Group: U.S.A., U.S.A., U.S.A.

ELLIOTT: Mike Huckabee corded the religious conservatives, the same group that gave him his early win in Iowa. He carried them but not by enough to overcome McCain's advantage elsewhere. Still, Huckabee's address in Columbia last night sounded more like a post-game pep talk than a concession speech. We left it all on the field, he told his supporters, and got awful close.

Mr. MIKE HUCKABEE (Former Republican Governor of Arkansas; Presidential Candidate): Unfortunately, in politics, close doesn't count for the first slot. But it does count. And the reason that I want to encourage you tonight is to remind you that politics - and particularly this year, more than perhaps any other - this is not an event. It is a process. And the process is far, far from over.

(Soundbite of cheers)

ELLIOTT: The process could be over soon for the other southerner in the race. Former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson came in third with 16 percent, just ahead of Mitt Romney who spent his recent days and dollars in Nevada. Thompson builds himself as the true conservative in the race. And his message resonated with Columbia accountant Wanda Wildman(ph), who decided to vote for Thompson after hearing him talk at a small group event.

Ms. WANDA WILDMAN (Accountant): In my voting life, this has been one of the most interesting presidential races. And to have had as many opportunities provided to us to actually meet and talk to presidential candidates has just really been remarkable. It makes me have tremendous faith in the United States and our system.

ELLIOTT: Her husband, Matt McGuire(ph), was also impressed with Thompson but…

Mr. MATT McGUIRE (Wanda Wildman's Husband): As much as I like him, I voted for McCain because we have a son that's in the Navy and military. And being a commander in chief had a big thing for us. And I do believe that he's a very honorable man.

ELLIOTT: But Thompson did make a difference here. His vote in many rural inland counties caused Huckabee his chance to overcome McCain's advantage along the state's coast and in the cities. In the end, that edge proved decisive.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Columbia, South Carolina. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.