For GOP, a key battleground

The Baltimore Sun

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- In every presidential contest since 1980, the winner of the South Carolina primary has gone on to become the Republican nominee.

Maybe that track record is one reason that Arizona Sen. John McCain, who lost the state eight years ago in a brutal fight with George W. Bush, hopes his forecast of victory in Saturday's election is accurate.

But Mike Huckabee is standing in the way of redemption for McCain, who heard fresh echoes yesterday of the ugliness he encountered in 2000.

Meanwhile, former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson is drawing "a line in the sand" in South Carolina and attracting larger crowds than he saw earlier in the campaign. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, fresh off his victory Tuesday in the Michigan primary, flew to South Carolina hoping to increase his share of the vote.

Underscoring the volatility - and uncertainty - surrounding the first Southern primary, a new statewide poll, released yesterday, found that more than one-third of likely Republican voters have yet to make up their minds.

"As many as one-quarter of the voters might decide in the last 24 hours before the Saturday election," concluded J. David Woodard, director of the Palmetto Poll at Clemson University.

Steve Henderson, a 45-year-old medical aide from Greer, S.C., is typical of the many voters who have yet to make a final decision. He is torn, he said, between Huckabee's "moral values" and McCain's "straightforwardness."

"I'm a Baptist. I'm a Christian. And I like a lot of what Huckabee talks about," said Henderson. But "McCain is strong and has a lot of experience."

In keeping with this state's reputation for bare-knuckle politics, a flood of negative phone calls, made by an independent group backing Huckabee, has put several candidates on the defensive, including Thompson and McCain. Huckabee has disavowed the calls.

McCain might well have the most to lose in a contest that his campaign concedes is "very important."

Winning South Carolina would put McCain in a strong position going into the Jan. 29 primary in Florida, where Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York mayor, awaits. Losing again could make McCain's New Hampshire victory seem a lonely one, and his cash-short campaign could face a financial crisis.

McCain abruptly ended a question-and-answer session with voters yesterday after a hostile questioner accused him of defying the wishes of South Carolina Republicans when he called, during the 2000 campaign, for removing the Confederate flag from atop the state Capitol. The flag was eventually moved to a nearby location after a prolonged fight.

"My answer, sir, is that I cannot be more proud of the overwhelming majority of the people of this state, who joined together, taking that flag off the top of the Capitol ... and settled that issue against people like you," McCain shot back, his words drowned out as several hundred people jumped to their feet, applauding his response.

Unlike his last campaign in this state, McCain is the candidate of much of South Carolina's Republican establishment, which could be a mixed blessing. He has tied himself tightly to Lindsey Graham, the state's senior senator, who drew scattered boos when he got up to introduce McCain at the town hall meeting in the socially conservative Piedmont region.

After the session's abrupt end, Graham predicted that McCain's response to the Confederate flag question would become "a defining moment" in the South Carolina campaign.

"Everybody in that audience stood up and cheered," Graham said in a brief interview. "There are a lot of Bush people who are with him now because they've seen what [McCain] did for President Bush [by campaigning for his re-election in 2004]. What [McCain] did to stand up for a new policy in Iraq resonates here. I think we're going to win - I know we're going to win - for all the right reasons."

With U.S. troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, McCain is sounding patriotic themes as he tries to assemble a broad South Carolina coalition of military veterans, defense hawks and economic conservatives. His wife, Cindy, tells voters at campaign stops that one of their sons is among those serving on active duty, something McCain himself refrains from mentioning.

The biggest difference between his 2000 and 2008 campaigns, McCain said, is that "we're in two wars, America's been attacked and the importance, the incredible importance, of who's qualified to be commander-in-chief and take on the challenge of radical Islamic extremism."

Another difference is that McCain is facing several potentially strong rivals, instead of just one.

Huckabee, with heavy support from evangelical Christians, could well be the favorite heading into Saturday's primary, state politicians say. Religious conservatives are likely to be more than 40 percent of the primary turnout, and the former Arkansas governor is expected to take the vast majority of their votes.

The outcome will likely turn on whether terrorism and national security outweigh illegal immigration and moral values as the top priority of primary voters. In recent days, Huckabee has toughened his line against illegal immigration, and Thompson has been hitting the issue hard as well.

McCain and his supporters are emphasizing his foreign policy credentials, saying he won't need on-the-job training.

"Let's make sure the military is well led by somebody who understands their world," Graham told several hundred people at a Spartanburg community center.

In his speeches, McCain is going out of his way to highlight his anti-abortion credentials. That's a response to an independent telephone campaign by a Colorado-based organization that, his advisers say, is distorting McCain's record. A McCain "truth squad" is also hitting back against a flier and Web site that accuse McCain of abandoning fellow prisoners of war in Vietnam.

After losing Michigan, a state he carried in 2000, McCain and his advisers are trying to play down that setback. By proposing tens of billions of dollars in aid for the hard-hit auto industry, Romney "bought" his victory, but there will be "a price to pay for his pandering" as the campaign moves to other states, said Steve Schmidt, a McCain adviser.

"Nobody who's ever won the Michigan primary has ever been elected president. We do that here. In South Carolina, we are the one that picks the next president of the United States," Attorney General Henry McMaster, a McCain supporter, told voters.

At a news conference, McCain said he would win the primary and dodged a question about whether a second straight South Carolina defeat would devastate his campaign.

"I predicted a victory in New Hampshire, and I didn't think that if I lost it would be devastating," he said. "I predict a victory here because I'm sure I will have a victory. That is the only reason."

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