McCain, S.C. find common ground

South Carolina reconciled with John McCain on Saturday night, as the candidate and voters found the common ground lacking eight years ago.

In 2000, South Carolina derailed McCain's run at the GOP nomination. This time, Palmetto State voters have given McCain a shot of momentum heading to a critical Jan. 29 Florida primary and the so-called Feb. 5 "Tsunami Tuesday" that could decide the Republican nominee.

South Carolina voters did not completely set aside their differences with McCain - many in the state view him as their least favorite of the GOP field. McCain angered Republicans by voting against President Bush's tax cuts and by pushing immigration reform.

McCain also sometimes bucks the party line.

But voters thought his experience, both in the Navy and the U.S. Senate, critical in dealing with the threat of terrorism, the war in Iraq and a foundering economy.

Voters also were more familiar with McCain this year than they were in 2000, a by-product of his constant visits to the state.

The world also has changed, with the Iraq war, the threat of international terrorism and an uncertain economy weighing on voters' minds.

Mary Blessing of Irmo, S.C., said she regretted not voting for McCain in 2000. The choice was clear this year, she said.

"He's the man we need right now," Blessing said. "I like his integrity, his platform. He'll give us what we need in this country now."

House Speaker Bobby Harrell and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, part of McCain's network of elite GOP backers, said South Carolina voters met the senator in the middle on what differences remained from 2000.

"They are voting the way they think they need to vote to protect their children," Harrell said. "The view of the issues and what's important is certainly different."

The race came down to the decisions made by seniors, veterans and Christian evangelicals.

According to exit polls, McCain ran strongest among South Carolina's oldest residents, taking 40 percent of those votes. Voters older than 60 accounted for 35 percent of the total vote, though they only make up 20 percent of the state population.

Though active and retired military make up about 14 percent of the population, they accounted for nearly one-quarter of all voters, with McCain claiming the most.

Huckabee won among evangelicals, claiming about 40 percent of the vote, but McCain kept the race close in the Upstate. According to exit polls, former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson may have sapped votes from Huckabee.

The coast again came out strongly for McCain, as did moderate and liberal voters. Huckabee scored well with conservatives.

McCain's win proves South Carolina voters still gravitate toward the establishment candidate, said Chip Felkel, a Greenville-based political consultant, especially among such a muddled GOP field.

"You can't say the state is totally governed by the religious right," Felkel said. "McCain wins on experience. The base vote will lean more heavily on the known entity."

The results were also a strong showing for Huckabee, who started as an unknown but found a natural match in South Carolina.

Huckabee's second-place finish was partially due to two political also-rans who raised their profile by jumping on Huckabee's team early.

Former Gov. David Beasley was a fixture on the trail, standing on stage next to Huckabee after his Iowa win and connecting with a network of evangelical voters.

One-time lieutenant governor candidate Mike Campbell tapped his family's political roots for Huckabee.

Campbell, son of late former governor Carroll Campbell, was among the first in the Palmetto State to support Huckabee.

"The apple doesn't fall far from the tree," Felkel said. "He's learned a lot from his father."

Exit polls validate the McCain strategy, which relied on building an early network in the state and riding a strong New Hampshire showing. Last-minute voters broke evenly between the two front-runners. McCain ran strongly among voters who had long made up their minds and voters who settled on their candidate a week ago.

The win, as with New Hampshire, could boost McCain's chances in later primaries. Polls already show McCain taking the lead in the Florida primary.

McCain's campaign team estimates it will cost $35 million to compete in the more than 20 states that vote Feb. 5. Winning an early state like South Carolina, experts say, can be key to attracting donations.

But the national race is still far from settled.

Mitt Romney's win in Saturday's Nevada caucuses gives him the early delegate lead. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani awaits in Florida, where he's been campaigning.

With so many states voting so early, South Carolina's track record of picking every GOP nominee since 1980 will be tested.

"The South is the Republican candidate's backyard," Harrell said. "The winner of our primary has an advantage."

(Staff writer Marjorie Riddle contributed to this report.)