McCain scoops South Carolina as Clinton wins tight Nevada race

COLUMBIA, South Carolina (AFP) – Republican White House hopeful John McCain scooped a sweet victory in South Carolina Saturday as Democrat Hillary Clinton took Nevada handing the two front-running candidates big wins.

With 93 percent of the precincts counted, Senator McCain was ahead with 33 percent of the vote over 30 percent for former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in the state that eight years ago destroyed his presidential hopes. “Thank you, my friends, and thank you, South Carolina, for bringing us across the finish line first, in the first-in-the-south primary.

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It took us a while, but what’s eight years among friends,” McCain told supporters. McCain noted that in every presidential race since 1980, South Carolina has picked the eventual Republican nominee for the White House. “We have a ways to go, of course. There are some tough contests ahead, starting tomorrow in the state of Florida. But, my friends, we are well on our way tonight. And I feel very good about our chances,” he said.

Clinton, the former first lady bidding to be the first woman US president, earlier won 51 percent of the popular vote in the Nevada caucuses, against 45 percent for Barack Obama. John Edwards trailed with just four percent. “This is one step on a long journey throughout the country as we put our cases forward and take that case to the people, and this was an especially wonderful day for me,” Clinton told cheering supporters.

But in a sign of how tight the race is, Obama’s campaign contended that the Illinois senator had in fact won more delegates to the national convention that will choose the Democrats’ presidential candidate in the November election. The claim was disputed by both the Nevada Democratic Party’s leader and the Clinton campaign, which said Obama’s team was plain “wrong.” In South Carolina, Huckabee offered his congratulations to McCain as the Baptist preacher was defeated despite counting on the support of the state’s legions of evangelical Christians.

“I had rather be where I am and have done it with honor than to have done it with the dishonor of attacking someone else,” Huckabee told a rally, after a campaign marked by suspect telephone calls to voters and anti-McCain flyers. McCain buried the ghosts of his defeat here in the 2000 primary, when he lost to George W. Bush after a poisonous campaign polluted by smears that were low even for South Carolina’s no-holds-barred politics.

Following his win in New Hampshire, the South Carolina result will help McCain cement front-runner status in the splintered Republican field heading into the Florida primary on January 29 and then “Super Tuesday” on February 5. Leading South Carolina Republican light Mike Campbell, son of the late governor Carroll Campbell, said Huckabee’s loss was “a combination of things.” “John McCain got some momentum coming out of New Hampshire and with the constant attacks Fred Thompson kept levelling against him, Thompson was able to pull just enough votes away,” he told AFP.

“Even though it didn’t wind up like we would have liked it to, I don’t think it’s over by a long shot.” Clinton’s fresh triumph over Obama gives her campaign a shot of energy ahead of South Carolina’s Democratic primary next Saturday, leading into Super Tuesday when more than 20 states will be up for grabs. Obama, who beat Clinton in Iowa at the start of the 2008 race only to see her come back in New Hampshire, pledged his bid to be the country’s first black president was far from over.

“We ran an honest, uplifting campaign in Nevada that focused on the real problems Americans are facing, a campaign that appealed to people’s hopes instead of their fears,” he said. “That’s the campaign we’ll take to South Carolina and across America in the weeks to come, and that’s how we will truly bring about the change this country is hungry for.”

Earlier Saturday, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney easily won Nevada’s Republican vote, adding to his victories in Michigan and Wyoming, after his rivals spurned the state in favor of South Carolina. The laidback Fred Thompson, a star of “Law and Order” and a former senator for Tennessee, was in third place on 16 percent in South Carolina, a point ahead of Romney. Thompson gave no indication of whether he might pull out of the Republican race after failing to do better in South Carolina, despite belatedly picking up the pace of his campaigning.