McCain takes South Carolina, Huckabee in second, Fred distant third

COLUMBIA, SC (CBS/AP) -- John McCain won the South Carolina Republican primary Saturday, narrowly defeating Mike Huckabee in a contest complicated by weather and voting machine malfunctions.

With 88 percent of precincts reporting, McCain was ahead of Huckabee, 33 percent to 30 percent.

McCain's win, in the state that dealt a huge blow to McCain's presidential hopes in 2000, gives him a boost headed into Florida's Jan. 29 primary, where polls indicate a tight race among the top GOP contenders.

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 about half of Saturday's turnout. Huckabee won 40 percent of their vote, compared to 27 percent for McCain.

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.

Weather advisories were in effect for much of the state and a cold rain greeted voters as polls opened at 7 a.m. Voting ended at 7 p.m.

As many as 90 percent of the electronic voting machines in one coastal South Carolina county did not work correctly when polls opened in Saturday morning's Republican primary, but most were up and running by noon, a county spokeswoman said.

Lisa Bourcier, a spokeswoman in Horry County, which is home to Myrtle Beach, said officials had heard reports of voters being turned away because of the problems, but had no idea how many people may have been affected.

"We have heard things," Bourcier said. "There could've been some poll workers out there that probably didn't know what to do. That's some things that we're tracking down. Any party can protest an issue in the primary election, but we haven't heard anything yet."

The county has 118 precincts and she said most have three to four machines. Bourcier said by midday about 80 percent of the affected machines had been fixed and were operational. County technicians were working to fix all problems, she said.

State Election Commission spokesman Chris Whitmire said some electronic machines in the county were not properly tested before Saturday. He said a final testing step that resets a machine for voting was not done, and that prevented the machines from starting up. He said some voters used paper ballots and said the state allows voters to cast their ballot using any type of paper.

The county is part of the state's coastal region, which is considered friendly territory for McCain. His state director, Buzz Jacobs, urged any voters turned away to return later.

"Some voters say they are being instructed to return at a later time," he said in a statement." We are disturbed by these reports and hope that this issue is resolved immediately. We encourage any voters who were turned away from the polls to return again to their polling place this afternoon to exercise their constitutional right to vote."

Whitmire and other polling officials around the state said they believed turnout in some areas was heavy early because of the forecasts. About 150 people turned out in the northern city of Mauldin by 11 a.m.

"We've been busy all morning," said poll manager Marsha Christian. "I think people are coming early because of the snow."

Pat Tanner, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service at Greenville-Spartanburg Airport, said the rain in the northern part of the state was expected to turn to snow by mid-afternoon. He said the snow would fall steadily until about 7 p.m., which is when polls close, and leave accumulations of about 1 to 3 inches.

In southern areas, officials predicted turnout would be average.

"Considering the weather and that this is a Saturday, it would be equal to our average turnout," said Jim McGorty, a poll manager in Goose Creek. "Of course voter apathy is evident all over the United States."

Any snow tends to bring South Carolina to a slow crawl at best. The state has little snow removal equipment and during a recent light snowfall, some schools closed or delayed opening before the first flakes fell.

The weather has experts pulling back from predictions that 2008 could see a bigger turnout than 2000. In that primary, nearly 27 percent of the state's registered voters - 565,000 people - voted, according to the state Election Commission.

The primary vote brings an end to months of Republican stump speeches, television ads and campaign phone calls for residents here, although there's one week of campaigning to go: The Democratic primary is Jan. 26.

The day claimed one casualty even before the South Carolina results were known: California Rep. Duncan Hunter, who has finished toward the bottom of every GOP contest, was set to announce he was ending his bid Saturday after a last place finish in Nevada's caucuses.

Despite the seemingly nonstop push, some voters said the lack of a clear frontrunner in the Republican race made it difficult for them to make up their minds. Recent polls had McCain, an Arizona senator, leading or tied with former Arkansas Gov. Huckabee, and some people said Saturday that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney had their attention, too.

"You'd like it if there were a combination of all three," said John Lenti, a Columbia resident who works at the University of South Carolina. "But you don't ever get that."

Lenti, who was among about 40 people who voted early at an Episcopal church in Columbia, said he opted for McCain, the veteran and former prisoner of war who lost here in 2000 after a bitter campaign against then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

South Carolinians have correctly predicted the GOP nominee since 1980. McCain this year made special appeals to veterans and Huckabee to evangelicals, while Romney in part stressed his business experience. Meanwhile, actor and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson was looking to shoulder his way into the pack, staking his campaign on a successful show in a Southern state.

In Greenville, where forecasters said several inches of snow could fall by the end of the day, Thompson was to appear at a restaurant in the morning. Resident Rupert Huse ate his breakfast and slipped out before the politician started to speak.

"I think Clark Gable was brilliant as Rhett Butler, but I don't think he'd make a great president," said Huse, 72, who said he voted for McCain because of the candidate's experience.

South Carolina merged nearly 300 polling places in 24 counties - or about 15 percent of all precincts statewide - in an effort to cut costs after the normally party-run primaries were put under state control last year. Election officials urged voters to check online or elsewhere to make sure they know where to vote.

© MMVIII, CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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