COLUMBIA -- John McCain survived South Carolina's harsh Republican brawl Saturday to defeat Mike Huckabee in the state's presidential primary and emerge with important momentum going into the next round in Florida on Jan. 29.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who all but pulled out of the state before the voting, appeared to be headed for a disappointing fourth-place finish in South Carolina, but earlier in the day easily won Nevada's GOP caucus in a largely uncontested race.
In South Carolina on Saturday, the nation's first GOP Southern test featured clear choices, with the self-described Arizona straight talker trying to woo the state's large military and veteran population, former Arkansas governor Huckabee appealing to the huge evangelical Christian vote and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson promoting himself as the true conservative son of the South.
With 93 percent of precincts reporting, McCain led with 33 percent of the vote and Huckabee trailed with 30 percent, followed by former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson with 16 percent and Romney with 15 percent.
But Huckabee didn't attract enough of those born-again religious voters. He beat McCain by only 40 to 27 percent with the fundamentalist Christian constituency, according to exit polls.
Huckabee's poor statewide showing with non-evangelicals -- he got only 12 percent -- raised the question of whether his quest for the nomination is in trouble, since to succeed nationally he must show greater strength than merely his evangelical base.
Thompson, whose flailing campaign is widely expected to end soon after the South Carolina vote, conceded prior to the vote that he needed to do well to continue his campaign, but said nothing about pulling out in a brief appearance before his supporters at about 8 p.m.
McCain's victory was redemption of sorts -- he lost the 2000 primary to then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush in an ugly fight that saw party regulars line up behind Bush. This time, McCain attracted many of those party figures while maintaining his image as a straight-talking maverick. The pitch worked.
"He's anti-abortion, for one. I think he's very courageous. I don't think he'll take any guff from anybody," said Colleen Barth, 56, a teacher's aide. Jim Gibson, 42, general counsel for a manufacturer, had similar thoughts.
"He'll do what's right," said Gibson, "and not worry about the polls. He'll talk straight and not pander to voters."
McCain built his coalition by attracting voters over 45 and winning pluralities in the more-populous Piedmont and Low Country regions, according to exit polls.
But he didn't glide to victory, thanks to a down-in-the-mud campaign and some wariness in South Carolina's powerful Christian community.
Many religious voters instead were drawn to Huckabee and Thompson.
Steven Flagler, 24, assistant manager at a team apparel store, called Thompson "the only true conservative in the bunch," while Jerry Glover, 38, who works in computer support for the Marine Corps, found that he and Huckabee "shared the same beliefs, and those beliefs would affect how he governs."
The campaign remained fierce to the end. Candidates accused one another of conducting push polls, and Thompson blasted forces that put negative pamphlets on the windshields of cars parked outside one of his rallies Friday.
"It's another last-second distortion -- it's basically high-school politics practiced by folks with high-school mentalities," he said.