McCain, Clinton win White House battles

Republican John McCain and Democrat Hillary Clinton won heated presidential nominating battles in separate contests in South Carolina and Nevada on Saturday, gaining strength in a chaotic White House race where no candidate has been able to sustain momentum.

McCain, an Arizona Senator, narrowly defeated rival Mike Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, in a fight focused on the economy in South Carolina—a state where his presidential hopes were destroyed in a bitter 2000 battle that set George Bush on a path to the White House.

“It took us a while, but what’s eight years among friends?” McCain told cheering supporters in Charleston. “My friends, we are well on our way tonight, and I feel very good.”

Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, won a Republican race in Nevada that his rivals largely skipped in order to concentrate on South Carolina.

Among Democrats, Clinton beat rival Barack Obama in a tough Nevada struggle that featured voting in the state’s famed casino hotels and produced heated charges of irregularities. The pair had split the first two Democratic contests.

“I guess this is how the West was won,” Clinton said in Las Vegas, telling reporters later: “This is one step on a long journey throughout the country.”

No one in either party has claimed the role of favourite in the race to pick the two candidates to contest the November 4 election to succeed Bush, with the first major state-by-state battles producing multiple winners.

For the victors on Saturday, the prize is a jolt of energy in a race where momentum has been short-lived.
Republican contenders head to Florida for a January 29 primary, while Democrats focus on next Saturday’s primary in South Carolina.

Both parties then turn their attention to the critical February 5 “Super Tuesday” round of 22 state contests.

Clinton, who would be the first United States woman president, won the Nevada Democratic race 51% to 45% over Obama, with turnout reported to surpass 115 000 voters. Former North Carolina senator John Edwards finished a distant third.

“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,” Obama, who would be the first black US president, said in a statement.

“That’s the campaign we’ll take to South Carolina and across America in the weeks to come,” he said.

South Carolina conservatives

McCain’s win in South Carolina, following his New Hampshire victory, was fuelled by support from conservatives, with exit polls showing seven in 10 voters in the state primary described themselves that way.

More than half of the voters were religious conservatives, but that was not enough to give the win to Huckabee, a Baptist preacher before he entered politics, whose Iowa win was fuelled by evangelical support.

The win was another step forward on the comeback trail for McCain, a former Vietnam prisoner-of-war whose presidential bid seemed finished last summer when he was low on cash, shedding staff and sinking in the polls.

South Carolina Republicans have been kingmakers in party politics, with the Republican winner in the state going on to capture the party’s nomination every year since 1980.

With almost all votes counted, McCain led Huckabee 33% to 30% in South Carolina. Former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson was edging Romney for third place.

The results created big questions for Huckabee and Thompson, who needed a strong showing in the state to go on. Thompson gave no sign of his future plans during an address to supporters in Columbia, but Huckabee said he was headed to Florida and beyond.

“The path to the White House is not ending here tonight,” Huckabee told supporters in Columbia. “We’ve got a lot of miles ahead of us.”

Romney’s convincing win in Nevada followed his breakthrough victory in Michigan last week after two disappointing second-place finishes.

Romney stressed his ability as a former business executive to tackle economic problems. Exit polls showed the economy was the top concern among Nevada’s Republican voters, followed closely by immigration.

“In the last week, two of the battleground states have come out strongly for our campaign. They have heard our message that Washington is broken,” Romney said in Jacksonville, Florida.

Worries about the economy have taken centre stage amid talk of a possible recession in the US, with each of the candidates offering recovery plans. Bush on Friday proposed about $150-billion in temporary tax breaks and other measures.

Representative Duncan Hunter of California fell victim to poor showings in all the early contests and dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination.—Reuters

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