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.
McCain came close Saturday to refuting the claim that he can win votes from everybody but Republicans. He cut into conservative bastions, nearly winning in Greenville (where Bush destroyed him in 2000). He received 25 percent of the evangelical vote, though Huckabee campaigned shamelessly as a man of God, and won by landslide proportions among non-evangelicals.
The older, wiser McCain is more careful and less combative. On election day here, as I sat with other reporters in the rear of McCain's "Straight Talk Express" bus, I asked for the senator's comment on DeLay's statement on Fox the night before. DeLay said he could not vote for McCain even against Hillary Clinton because of grave damage he had done the Republican Party.
Graham, seated nearby, snorted in disbelief. But McCain limited himself to the polite comment that he and Tom DeLay had disagreements. Indeed, the 2000 McCain's emphasis on campaign finance reform and opposition to tax cuts were missing from his 2008 campaigning here. He has adjusted his support for immigration reform to negate the issue.
But McCain has not entirely abandoned "straight talk" in seeking Republican anointment. I asked him Saturday whether he knew of any instance of an economic stimulus such as President Bush's proposed $800-per-taxpayer handout actually averting a recession. He said he did not, and the proposal bothered him.
That kind of answer by McCain has annoyed Republican grandees for years, but it also is what sets him apart from other politicians. It brought to South Carolina last week such endorsers as Sen. Tom Coburn, who maddens his Republican colleagues with his campaign against pork, and Sen. Joe Lieberman, who defied his Democratic Party's orthodoxy on Iraq. Even the GOP elders seem ready to grit their teeth and go along with McCain.