COLUMBIA, S.C. — On the eve of Saturday’s Republican primary in South Carolina, there are signs that Mike Huckabee could be overtaking John McCain, who had been favored to win the first southern test of the ’08 campaign.
New polling over the last two days shows McCain and Huckabee statistically tied. At least one unreleased poll had Huckabee up by four points, while a Mason-Dixon poll for MSNBC-McClatchy had McCain’s lead down to two points.
After his New Hampshire victory on Jan. 8, McCain grabbed the lead in opinion surveys in South Carolina, where he is hoping for redemption in the state that doomed his first try for the presidency, eight years ago. A defeat tomorrow could be similarly devastating.
From here, the race goes to Florida. Polls show a close four-way contest there among McCain, Huckabee, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani heading into the Jan. 29 primary.
Romney abandoned South Carolina earlier this week for Nevada, where his only competition in tomorrow’s Republican caucuses is Ron Paul, but he continues to invest heavily in TV advertising in South Carolina (as does Paul). Romney received no boost from his favorite-son victory in Michigan’s primary earlier this week and Republican politicians in this state say he seems to be falling farther behind as undecided voters make up their mind.
McCain’s loss to George W. Bush after an unusually nasty campaign in 2000 effectively ended his chances of becoming the nominee. This time, he’s got the support of much of the state’s political establishment and is counting on military veterans and moderate conservatives to redeem that earlier defeat.
But the state’s large evangelical Christian voting bloc, and growing fears about the economy and illegal immigration, could mean less attention to national security and terrorism, the issues McCain is emphasizing in his campaign.
New figures released today showed the largest jump in unemployment in South Carolina since 1990, and the state’s jobless rate is now the fourth highest in the country.
Huckabee is coupling his religious-themed candidacy with a strong dose of economic populism. The former Arkansas governor is also trying to appeal to regional pride, reminding voters that he speaks the way they do and eats the same foods, such as catfish and grits.
A similar down-home pitch by Fred Thompson, from neighboring Tennessee, has had much more limited success. The former senator is running well behind Huckabee and McCain, polls show. He appears likely to join other candidates, going back to John Connally of Texas in 1980, for whom South Carolina was the end of the trail.
One wild card that could influence the outcome on Saturday: Forecasts call for bad weather statewide, and especially in the “upstate” portions of the Piedmont plateau, where social and religious conservatives are concentrated. That could work to McCain’s advantage, his supporters say.
But the conditions may have the opposite effect: by magnifying Huckabee’s edge among Christian voters, who seem to be the ones who are the most motivated to turn out on Saturday.