Robert Novak

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Sen. John McCain's win over Mike Huckabee in South Carolina was no landslide, but stands as by far the most important win in his quest for the presidency. It means that McCain by any measurement is the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. He clearly leads in Florida's Jan. 29 primary, and a victory there will send him into the virtual national primary Feb. 5 threatening to wipe out his opposition.

The question is whether the Republican establishment's grudges will persist, as former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's have, to somehow keep from the nomination the candidate the Democrats feel is the strongest Republican in a general election. The probable answer is no, because it is in the nature of Republicans to abhor a Democrat-like free-for-all and seek an anointed candidate. McCain is far closer to such a status than his principal rival, Mitt Romney.

That is the importance of McCain's winning in conservative South Carolina, where George W. Bush trounced him in 2000. Huckabee's strong showing was an aberration (as was his win in the Iowa caucuses), with his disproportionate support from self-identified evangelical voters. Romney was the real threat to McCain here, but his massive television buy failed. Romney's embarrassing fourth-place finish was preordained when he abandoned the state two days before the election to go to Nevada, where he was unopposed and his win in the state's caucuses was fueled by fellow Mormons.

McCain's transition from 2000 maverick to 2008 establishmentarian was symbolized by his election eve rally aboard the U.S.S. Yorktown aircraft carrier (now a museum) in Charleston harbor. Sen. Lindsey Graham, his top supporter here eight years ago, was at McCain's side as usual. So were other prominent South Carolina Republicans, such as House Speaker Bobby Harrell and Attorney General Henry McMaster -- plus McCain's longtime conservative ally, former Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas.

But the most significant person on the Yorktown's platform was State Rep. Chip Limehouse, a scion of a famous South Carolina Republican family who supported Bush in 2000 and did not make up his mind this year until Thursday. Limehouse told me he decided to back McCain because of concern about national security (especially important in a state heavy with both military installations and veterans). But he added another factor: "I felt badly about what happened eight years ago" -- referring to the smear campaign against McCain in South Carolina.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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