Florida becomes showdown state for GOP

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John McCain’s victory in South Carolina puts the Arizona senator in a strong position to win the Republican presidential nomination -- but only if he can follow up with another win in Florida nine days from now.

“This is a huge win for McCain,” said Scott Reed, a veteran Republican campaign manager who is not affiliated with a candidate. “He has the most momentum going into Florida next week.”

South Carolina was an important test for McCain because its Republican electorate is dominated by Southern social conservatives, the voters who derailed his presidential campaign in 2000.

An exit poll of primary voters showed that McCain didn’t win a majority among conservative or evangelical Christian voters this time, either -- but he won just enough of their votes to deny victory to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who failed to unify social conservatives behind his cause.

“Huckabee is one of the big losers here,” Republican strategist Eddie Mahe said. “He’s a long way from his last victory.” Huckabee won the campaign’s initial test, the Iowa caucuses, on Jan. 3, but he has won none of the five contests since.

The exit poll found that Huckabee won a little more than 40% of voters who described themselves as evangelical Christians -- but that meant that more than half of all evangelical voters went to other candidates, including about one-fourth for Mc- Cain.

“If you can hold Huckabee to 40% of the evangelical vote, you’ve got him beat,” Republican pollster Neil Newhouse said. “He was not only unable to expand beyond his evangelical base, he was unable to coalesce the evangelicals.”

McCain can now claim that he has won hotly contested primaries in the campaign’s most conservative Southern state, South Carolina, and its most moderate Northern state, New Hampshire -- a useful argument in a party that is searching for a candidate capable of unifying its fragmented parts. That puts McCain “in the strongest position of any candidate at this point to win the nomination,” Reed said.

But the results in South Carolina still fell short of the kind of unalloyed triumph for McCain that might have vaulted him into a clear lead.

According to the exit poll, McCain roughly tied with Huckabee among voters who consider themselves Republicans; his winning margin came, instead, from self-described independents, who made up almost one-fifth of the electorate. And Huckabee won among voters who consider themselves conservatives; McCain won overall thanks to a big margin among self-described moderates.

The results were similar to those in New Hampshire Jan. 8, where McCain won overall but lost among conservatives to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

“McCain still faces remarkable resistance in the conservative community,” Mahe said. But conservative Republicans haven’t unified behind a single candidate the way they did with George W. Bush in 2000, he noted -- leaving the way open for the Arizona senator to take the lead.

McCain has been a thoroughgoing conservative on most fiscal and national-security issues, but his penchant for breaking ranks with his party to compromise with Democrats on issues such as campaign-finance reform has made him an object of mistrust, escalating sometimes to fury, among many Republicans.

In 2000, the party’s establishment rallied around Bush, and McCain was a defiant insurgent challenging their choice. This time, the party’s established leaders have divided their support among several candidates -- principally McCain, Romney and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who did not seriously compete in South Carolina -- and Huckabee played the role of insurgent.

Giuliani, who has been in the lead in most national polls, is not only competing in the campaign’s next test in Florida; he has staked his entire candidacy on a victory there.

“It’s true: No one of us Republican candidates meets the full test,” Giuliani said Saturday in an interview with CNN. “That’s one of the reasons . . . the race is still open.”

Until now, Florida appeared to be a four-man race among McCain, Giuliani, Romney and Huckabee.

But McCain’s victory in South Carolina raised the possibility that it could become a two-candidate collision between McCain and Giuliani, with the victor able to claim front-runner status heading into the 21 GOP contests scheduled for Feb. 5, dubbed Super Tuesday.

“Florida is the showdown state,” pollster Newhouse predicted. “It’s shaping up to be a microcosm of the party: part Southern, part northern, part Republican establishment, part evangelical. And at this point, McCain appears to be in pretty good shape.”

“Momentum matters,” said Mahe, a veteran of dozens of Republican congressional campaigns. “It matters because McCain doesn’t have a lot of money and organization in Florida. He needs every boost he can get. I don’t care if he won by only a hundred votes, coming in first provides a sense of momentum.”

Giuliani has led public opinion polls in Florida for months -- but in recent weeks, and especially since McCain’s initial victory in New Hampshire, the former New York mayor’s support has gradually ebbed, and McCain’s has slowly risen.

“Every vote that Giuliani drops has gone immediately to McCain,” said Reed, noting that the two candidates cast themselves as hawks on national security in a time of war and so are appealing to many of the same voters.

Romney and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson ended in a virtual dead heat for third place in South Carolina -- but the effect was likely to be more damaging to Thompson, who had counted on running well in a Southern state to demonstrate that his flagging candidacy was still viable.

“Clearly the big loser in the mix is Thompson. He put most of his chips on South Carolina,” Mahe said. “The question is, where does the Thompson voter go? I don’t know the answer to that. But I would think McCain and Romney might be natural second choices for those voters.”

Among Republican strategists, speculation immediately broke out over whether Thompson would withdraw from the race -- and whether he would endorse any of the remaining candidates.

“Thompson and McCain are pretty close,” Reed said. “I’ve got to believe that if he’s at the end of the road, he’s going to endorse McCain.”

But Thompson himself, in an upbeat speech as returns came in, gave no sign that he was considering leaving the race. And his aides told reporters that no such decision was imminent.

The exit poll in South Carolina was conducted for the National Election Pool, a consortium of media organizations, by the independent polling firm Edison/Mitofsky. The poll interviewed 1,655 Republican primary voters as they left the polling places.