So, Can We Call Him the Front-Runner?

How McCain’s South Carolina win changes the GOP race.

He’s not dead again. John McCain won the South Carolina primary in a squeaker over Mike Huckabee (33 percent to 30 percent). The win was not only a comeback for McCain after losing handily to Mitt Romney in the Michigan primary, but also a spiritual victory for him. Eight years ago, the GOP establishment rose up to squash his insurgent candidacy and support George Bush. *

Since 1980, every Republican presidential nominee has won South Carolina. This is the kind of rule Republicans would love to embrace in this topsy-turvy season to just to stop the motion sickness. But it’s too soon to call McCain the front-runner, especially since he still wasn’t able to win among rank and file Republicans (though exit polls show he only lost to Huckabee among this group by one point). His South Carolina victory makes the picture only a little clearer heading into Florida, where Rudy Giuliani has been camped out so long in advance of the primary on Jan. 29, he’s likely to greet his rivals wearing Sansabelt pants and a Tommy Bahama shirt. So: McCain is now battling Mitt Romney for the nomination, but Huckabee and Giuliani remain available to confuse everything.

When Romney won Saturday in the largely uncontested Nevada caucus, he and his aides tried mightily to puff his victory into the day’s most important result. But South Carolina was the real GOP battle, because every candidate competed seriously there at one time or another.

McCain now looks like the GOP front-runner because his victories have come in the hard-fought contests in New Hampshire and South Carolina, but he can’t claim that title when it comes to delegate counts. Mitt Romney has more delegates. This probably feels like a mere technicality for McCain, and each time Romney asserts his numerical lead—which he’s likely to do every other sentence for the next few weeks—it will no doubt produce a string of expletives from the Straight Talk Express.

Which candidate will have the edge going forward? The economy blossomed as an issue in South Carolina as it had in the Michigan primary, and it will continue to be important into the next GOP contest in Florida. That’s natural turf for Romney, whose “Change Washington” message may have a series of inconsistencies but works well on the stump. McCain, by contrast, is not nearly as convincing when he talks about economic issues as he is when talking about national security—although he was smart enough to keep mum this past week about how certain jobs would never come back to South Carolina. McCain will continue to focus on his foreign-policy experience, hoping that most Republicans will recognize that presidents have more influence over security issues than they do the economy. The Republican race now looks like it, too, is about change vs. experience.

Fred Thompson came in third in South Carolina with 16 percent of the vote, but he’s likely to get a steady stream of gift baskets from John McCain. Thompson spent weeks attacking Mike Huckabee, and his attacks took their toll. As John King illustrated on CNN, in the most conservative counties (the ones Bush won in 2000), it was Thompson who stole votes from Huckabee. Huckabee not only didn’t do as well among evangelicals as he needed to, he also didn’t grow his vote outside of the faith community, which he needs to do to show he’s got broader appeal. In fact, he may have shrunk his appeal. In the last few days, Huckabee offered tacit support for the Confederate flag that once flew above the statehouse here and suggested that the Constitution be amended to be brought in line with God. As he made stronger appeals to social conservatives, he may have turned off other Republicans.

When asked about running for president a second time, McCain often said he doubted he could match the excitement of his first run. He’d never be able to capture lightning in a bottle again, is how he put it. Now, after his campaign nearly imploded last summer, he’s improved on his performance eight years ago in the state where he was bitterly defeated. Whatever he’s got in his bottle this time, the trick now is keeping it there.

Correction, Jan. 20, 2008: The article originally and incorrectly said that Democrats and independents could not participate in the GOP primary. They could. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)