"It just took us awhile, that's all," McCain said in an interview with the Associated Press. "Eight years is not a long time." (
With almost all precincts reporting, McCain had 33 percent of the vote to Huckabee's 30 percent. The win gives McCain a boost headed into the Jan. 29 primary in Florida, where polls indicate a tight race.
Asked if he was now the front-runner for the GOP nomination, McCain demurred.
"I don't know," he said, "we like to run from behind."
Still, he expressed optimism going forward.
"I'm very confident that we'll win in Florida," he said. "We showed that the first-in-the-South primary is a very important victory, and it gives us a very important progress that we can carry right through Florida and February 5th," he said.
"This is not an event. It is a process, and the process is far, far from over," he said as about 400 supporters cheered. (
The closely contested state was crucial for Huckabee, who needed to prove his victory in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses was no fluke.
A former Baptist minister, Huckabee had hoped grass-roots support from born-again Christians would help him outflank McCain's superior campaign finances and organization of McCain, winner of the Jan. 8 New Hampshire primary.
, at 16 percent, and , at 15 percent, were in a tight race for a distant third place. , once the national front-runner, had only 2 percent of the vote, half of that won by .
Republican voters headed to polls across South Carolina on Saturday with two forecasts in mind: their history of correctly tapping the eventual GOP nominee, and a more immediate prediction of snow that threatened to dampen turnout, especially in conservative northern communities.
But their top concern when it came to casting their ballot appeared to be the economy, according to CBS News early exit polling. It was cited by 40 percent of voters as their top concern, followed by illegal immigration at 26 percent.
Huckabee, who polls showed deadlocked with McCain for the lead headed into Saturday's vote, has emphasized economic issues, along with aggressively courting evangelical voters, who were estimated to make up nearly 60 percent of Saturday's turnout. Huckabee won 40 percent of their vote, compared to 27 percent for McCain.
But McCain held a big edge on the question of who was more likely to beat the Democratic nominee in November, with 42 percent choosing him over Huckabee, who only 22 percent said he would be the best general election candidate.
The exit polling indicates about one-third of voters made up their minds in the past three days, and that independent voters comprised about 19 percent of the electorate, down significantly from 2000, when independents made up 30 percent of the turnout. However, 39 percent of them backed McCain, compared to 22 percent for Huckabee. Among registered Republicans, the two were split evenly.
"John McCain avenged his 2000 loss in South Carolina and scored in an important symbolic state for Republicans," said CBSNews.com Senior Political Editor Vaughn Ververs. "No Republican has won their party's nomination without winning the South Carolina primary. But Florida and Super Tuesday are on the horizon and nothing is sure in this topsy-turvy contest."
In Florida, McCain, Romney and Huckabee will all be seeking to add to their win totals, and Giuliani will be seeking his first win. The former New York mayor has largely eschewed early, small states in the hope that winning Florida will allow him to win other large states that vote on Feb. 5.
"We're waiting for you," Giuliani said, addressing his GOP rivals at a Florida campaign stop. "We're waiting for you with a campaign we've been working on for I think almost a year."
Saturday's result was a disappointment for Thompson, who had invested large amounts of time and money in South Carolina in an effort to turn around his campaign. Once seen as someone who could rally the party's conservative base, he has failed to perform well in early contests.
"Our country needs strong leadership, needs our party to step up, assume the battle of leadership again," Thompson said to his South Carolina supporters before results were released. "But we need to remember that we need to deserve to lead and that's what all this about is deserving to lead." (