Both Mitt Romney and John McCain won nominating contests today. But only McCain won a contest that matters, and now the Arizona Senator may be on the verge of running away from the rest of the Republican field.
The key will now be Florida, which will vote on January 29, the only other Republican contest between now and February 5. If McCain can post a follow-up victory in the Sunshine State, he will emerge as the clear Republican front-runner and much of the party’s establishment and its rank-and-file masses will move to his camp, positioning him to deliver a pulverizing blow to his remaining rivals on February 5.
McCain’s victory in South Carolina is more significant than Romney’s in Nevada for many reasons. The simplest is that McCain had actual opposition in South Carolina, where Mike Huckabee, Fred Thompson and Romney (to a slightly lesser degree) all mounted exhaustive efforts. (Romney was the only candidate besides Ron Paul to do so in Nevada).
More important, McCain’s South Carolina win makes a powerful statement about the willingness of the G.O.P.’s base to rally behind him, however reluctantly. This is the state where his campaign sunk in 2000, when conservatives came to regard McCain as a disloyal Republican — a tag that had haunted him earlier in the current campaign.
The South Carolina Republican electorate is in many ways representative of the national Republican electorate. By winning the state — and rather convincingly — McCain has now shown an ability to expand his base beyond states like New Hampshire, where independents vote in large numbers and where the typical Republican is less conservative than his or her national counterpart.
Tellingly, exit polls showed that this year’s South Carolina primary attracted more Republicans and fewer independents than the 2000 primary, which McCain lost to George W. Bush by 14 points. In 2000, it was the support of those independents that gave McCain a fighting chance, but this time around he came in first among Republicans. And among evangelicals, he secured nearly 30 percent of the vote — only 14 points behind Huckabee, a former Baptist minister with deep Southern roots. McCain may not be the G.O.P. base’s first choice, but South Carolina Republicans have just signaled that he is an acceptable choice.
Similar Republican voters across the country have been jumping between candidates or sitting on the fence for months, largely unimpressed and uninspired by every candidate in the race. They were willing to shrug and join up with Romney had he scored the decisive Iowa and New Hampshire victories that his original strategy called for. But he lost those states, opening the door for McCain, who won New Hampshire. Almost overnight, McCain then moved to the top of national G.O.P. polls and into contention in South Carolina and Florida. A loss tonight would have stemmed that momentum — and likely opened the door for Romney — but by winning South Carolina, the trend toward McCain will only continue.
That means that, just like after New Hampshire, he will have an opportunity to inflict grievous damage on Romney in Florida and to run away with the nomination. And the good news for McCain is that he was already tied (with Romney, Huckabee, and Rudy Giuliani) for the Florida lead before South Carolina, which will likely give him a bounce.
The South Carolina results should also hurt strong-second-place finisher Huckabee, who will now be treated more as a marginalized “niche” candidate, and Giuliani, whose strategy depends on no candidate corralling the rank-and-file masses before Florida, something that McCain is beginning to do.
And McCain may also get an assist from his old Senate friend Fred Thompson, who seems out of options after losing — badly — his must-win state of South Carolina. Thompson, though, may stay in the race through Florida, where his conservative message could drain votes from Romney and Huckabee. Plus, he might, in effect, do McCain’s bidding in the pre-Florida debate, taking shots at Romney much the way he did before the New Hampshire primary.
Florida will be an expensive and probably ugly contest. Romney must win it to stem the McCain tide before February 5. But thanks to South Carolina, McCain is in a good position to stop him. And if he can pull that off, he will be the clear favorite on February 5 — and for the nomination.