It’s on to Florida as McCain takes South Carolina

Mike Huckabee pulled in a close second with 30% to McCain’s 33%

John McCain took the early lead in the South Carolina primary Saturday and never lost it.

With 93 percent of precincts reporting, McCain had 33 percent and Mike Huckabee, 30 percent. Fred Thompson had 16 percent, Mitt Romney had 15 percent. Ron Paul was polling at 4 percent and Rudy Giuliani at 2 percent. Duncan Hunter, fairing poorly in both Nevada and South Carolina on Saturday, was returning to San Diego and planned to drop out, FOX News learned.

A win for McCain could be a big boost going into the Florida primary Jan. 29 and Super Tuesday Feb. 5, when 24 states hold a variety of primaries and caucuses for both parties. There has been no breakaway front-runner in the GOP race — Huckabee won the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, while McCain won the Jan. 8 New Hampshire primary. Romney won lower profile contests in Wyoming, Michigan and Nevada, but leads the delegate count.

A jubilant crowd chanted “Mac is back” as the candidate took the stage with his wife and family. The crowd repeated the call, loudly applauding and hooting throughout McCain’s speech.

McCain’s supporters said they had waited eight years for the victory. McCain lost a head-to-head match against George W. Bush in the state in 2000. Many of his backers said the September report on Iraq by Gen. David Petraeus was the beginning of a turnaround they expect to take to the Republican National Convention.

In his victory speech, McCain said he was “humbled by and grateful for” the support.

“Thank you, South Carolina, for bringing us across the finish line first in the first-in-the-South primary,” McCain said from his victory party in Charleston.

“You know, it took us a while but what’s eight years among friends? What it really did, it gave us the opportunity to spend more time in this beautiful state to talk to you, to listen to you and to come to admire all the more the deep patriotism of South Carolinians to defend our country from its enemies,” he continued.

The Arizona senator added that he has a long way to go, but was pumped to win Florida, the next GOP contest, scheduled for Jan. 29.

“I’m not running for president, to be somebody but to do something. i am running to keep America safe, prosperous and proud,” he said. “Nothing is inevitable in our country. We are the captains of our fate. We can overcome the challenges if we stand by our courage.”

Prior to McCain’s speech, Huckabee told supporters he had made the call to congratulate his opponent.

“I told him that I’d much rather have him call me tonight, but he was gracious just as we knew he would be,” Hucakbee said.

Disregarding the push-polling in South Carolina done by a Colorado-based group called Common Sense Issues, the former Arkansas governor said he appreciated McCain’s running a “decent, civil campaign.”  Common Sense Issues had made phone calls suggesting McCain had collaborated with the North Vietnamese while in a prisoner of war camp, and had supported abortion rights. The McCain camp denied such claims and offered a Truth Squad to refute them, and Huckabee disavowed the tactics used by the group that openly claimed its support for Huckabee.

“I had rather be where I am and have run it with honor then to have won it and get there by attacking somebody else,” Huckabee said. “And I am grateful for the campaign that you have been willing to run with me, and I am grateful for the campaign he has run as well.

“Unfortunately in politics close doesn’t count for the first slot, but it does count. … This is not an event, this is a process, and the process is far, far from over.”

Thompson had been hoping to revive a sagging campaign with a strong showing in South Carolina, and Romney had hoped to place well in the state, despite campaigning in Nevada in the days before the caucuses there.

Thompson, who has called himself the consistent conservative candidate in the race, said he would make up his mind about his future plans after consulting with his mother, who’s in the hospital.  Speaking with supporters in Columbia, S.C., he didn’t give any indication about his next steps.

“It may be a little early to declare victory, I’m not sure,” Thompson joked early in the evening. “We told our folks to vote late, so they’ll be trickling in.” Thompson then spoke seriously, saying that the voting isn’t about what the candidates or the voters want, but is about the future of the Republican Party.

South Carolina’s vote counting was off to a slow start after polls closed at 7 p.m. ET. Voters in one coastal county faced problems with voting machines and moved to paper ballots. Election Commission spokesman Gary Baum said because of the paper ballots used in Horry County, the count could take a while. Baum said he knew of no other significant problems at polling sites.

State Republican party officials expected 500,000 votes to be cast Saturday, but sleet and snow threatened turnout. The turnout ended up being closer to 400,000.

Still, snow did not begin falling in the western part of the state until one hour before polls closed. Low country, or the coastal areas, were considered McCain strongholds, whereas upcountry — the northern and western parts of the state – were considered favorable to Huckabee.

Early polling came mostly from the southern portion of the state, setting up McCain’s early lead. But the northern city of Greenville, a Huckabee stronghold and the biggest Republican primary area in the state, one that delivered victory to Bush over McCain by 20 points in 2000, didn’t deliver. The area gave a puny winning margin for the former Arkansas governor, not enough to turn the race.

Polls ahead of the primary showed about 20 percent of voters were undecided in the state, and many of those voters showed up at campaign events for McCain and Huckabee in the days before the vote. Among those who made up their mind in the last three days, the majority of the group split almost evenly between the two — 64 percent for Huckabee compared to 65 percent for McCain.

The state is a bastion of patriotism and military service, with 25 percent of voters being military veterans. They overwhelmingly were going for McCain, according to early exit polling. McCain also had an impressive roster of South Carolina heavyweights supporting him, including Sen. Lindsey Graham and Attorney General Henry McMaster.

Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, was looking for big numbers from The Palmetto State’s largest denomination: Southern Baptists. His staff expected 60 percent of the GOP vote to be evangelical Christians, and they said it felt like Iowa, where he pulled a win out from nowhere.

McCain aides said the Arizona senator will be fine if Huckabee can be held to about 40 percent of undecided evangelicals.

But Huckabee also appeared to suffer from the role Thompson played among that group. Huckabee won evangelicals who voted — 40 percent to McCain’s 27 percent. Thompson took 14 percent of this vote.  If that 14 percent had split the same way the 40-27 did, that would have given Huckabee an advantage.

Thompson also likely pulled from self-described conservatives. Sixty-eight percent of GOP voters in South Carolina call themselves conservatives. Huckabee won the group, 33 percent to McCain’s 26 percent.  But Thompson got 18 percent of this voting bloc. Had those voters leaned toward Huckabee, that may also have had a major impact.

Huckabee campaign chairman and chief strategist Ed Rollins told FOX News that Thompson did for McCain exactly what he set out to do.

“Fred Thompson did his job. He couldn’t help McCain win in 2000 as national co-chair but tonight he helped him win. I don’t want to take away anything from McCain, he has been here for eight years, and he had great organization. We knew it would be close,” Rollins said, adding Thompson “split votes for us. He knows he’s not viable, he’s not going to win and isn’t really campaigning but did enough to do his job.”

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