On a Saturday morning barely five months ago, John McCain stepped off his campaign bus in Rock Hill as an embattled candidate, mired in the polls and behind in fundraising.
His somber 20-minute talk at the VFW lodge focused entirely on the war in Iraq, leading some to wonder whether he was campaigning more for the troop surge than his own presidential aspirations. Afterward, a TV news reporter asked McCain if he would stay in the race through January. The candidate bristled.
"We're doing just fine, thanks very much," he snapped before the question was finished. "We're very pleased."
Five months later, McCain left South Carolina on Saturday in a vastly different position after an improbable comeback in an equally improbable place: The state that wrecked his presidential bid eight years ago.
"I never gave up on him," said Diane Carr of Lake Wylie, who lived for 18 years in Arizona and is now one of McCain's top supporters in York County. "He's always had a core of support. Once he won New Hampshire ... that gave him some momentum. I think he's the guy to beat going into Florida."
York County goes to Huckabee
McCain's primary victory came in spite of voters in York County, not because of them. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee won here by more than 2,400 votes, drawing on the strength of four visits to Fort Mill and Rock Hill since last spring.
Huckabee's first swing through South Carolina as a presidential candidate started at Captain Steve's, a fish camp in Fort Mill. Over the ensuing months, he threw out a ceremonial first pitch at a Charlotte Knights game and held a rally here Friday night.
"Fred Thompson killed us," said Joe St. John, Huckabee's chief York County organizer. "He's in there to save McCain. Disappointed, yeah, but we'll fight on another day."
Huckabee's popularity in the Upstate wasn't enough to offset the coastal region's support for McCain, who struck many Republicans as the candidate best suited to take on the Democrats.
"When I was making phone calls, I did hear a lot of people say they were looking ahead to the general election -- who they thought would be the best candidate against a Hillary or a Barack Obama," said McCain volunteer Stephanie Rankin, 39, a real estate broker in Tega Cay. "They felt he was the strongest."
That sentiment was captured by Rick Foor, 36, an information technology recruiter from Fort Mill.
"My heart said Huckabee and my mind said McCain," Foor said. "It's more important to win in November."
Saturday's outcome appeared to signal the end for Fred Thompson, the former Tennessee senator who staked his chances on a strong showing in South Carolina.
"Congratulations to the McCain camp," said Thompson supporter Park Gillespie of Clover, who took ill with a cold and fever late Saturday. "We still have a very fractured party and we'll see where it goes from here. Right now, I just want to get to bed."
York County's ambivalence toward McCain was evident at Thursday's Too restaurant, where two dozen subdued Republicans watched the results on Fox News. Some in the local establishment seem torn, not wanting South Carolina to lose its kingmaker status -- but also not sold on McCain.
"We'll all have to get behind him," said York County GOP Chairman Glenn McCall. "I thought Huckabee ... I don't know what happened. If we want to keep our record, it would have to be McCain."